Archive for the ‘art-house’ category

To the Wonder

April 21, 2013

To-The-Wonder-Trailer6The throughline of To the Wonder is quite simple, as many romantic movies are. An American man in France falls in love with a French woman. He invites her and her daughter back to America. It doesn’t work out, and the woman and her daughter leave. The man strikes up a relationship with another woman he once knew years ago. That doesn’t work out, either. Then the man invites the French woman back to America. They get married. This doesn’t make things much easier. Meanwhile, a priest is having trouble with his faith. He and the man wander around a bit, comforting the sick and elderly. The end, I think.

That sort of synopsis doesn’t nearly grapple with To the Wonder, but then no synopsis could pin Terrence Malick to the ground. This is Malick’s sixth film in a 40-year career; he has been working at a positively blistering clip lately, relative to his output, because his previous film, The Tree of Life, only came out two years ago, and he’s working on another. Malick, who once taught philosophy and translated Heidegger, is perhaps the lone acolyte of the American sublime; he is preoccupied with the ineffable, the primordial, the ecstatic. To this end, he makes hushed and meditative films with painfully beautiful photography and lots of solemn, whispered voice-overs. Not a Team Malick member myself, I thought that Tree of Life was gaseous yet movingly inchoate, the work of a true seeker, and that it probably represented the purest expression of what he’s getting at.

And what is he getting at? In To the Wonder, the man (Ben Affleck) and the French woman (Olga Kurylenko) seem to represent The Man and The Woman. There are no people in a Terrence Malick film; instead there are abstracted avatars standing in for ideas. In Tree of Life, Brad Pitt was Nature — red in tooth and claw — and Jessica Chastain was Grace, spinning about free-spiritedly. And we see the same dynamic here. Men, weighted to the earth, must contend with its despoliation (Affleck’s character literally measures how much we’re poisoning the soil). Women, if this film and its predecessor are to be believed, fling their arms to the heavens at every opportunity and dance among the fireflies, the buffalo, the waves at the beach. If Tree of Life was about the son who felt pulled between the forces of Nature and Grace, To the Wonder is a kind of prequel-in-spirit in which we see how uneasily Nature and Grace live together.

So you see, it’s not really a romantic movie after all. Well, not lowly human romance, anyway. The priest (Javier Bardem) is there for a very significant thematic reason: to remind us how far we’ve fallen from the Grace of God. (This movie and Tree of Life feel intensely spiritual but don’t seem to show specific allegiance to any creed. God here is, as AA puts it, “as we understand him.” Or her. With Malick, we can’t be sure.) A little has been made of the way some of the plot seems to mirror Malick’s own romantic past, but I’d say he’s just writing what he knows as an on-ramp onto the highway of higher mysteries. Nature and Grace are mutually infatuated but can never reconcile; their aims are too different. Affleck, who sees daily what his species has done to the planet, cannot love. Kurylenko seeks companionship but cannot, will not, be tied down.

Your response to all this depends extremely heavily on how much philosophizing and pretty pictures you’re willing to accept in lieu of a story. I seem to have grown tired in recent years of the stuff Hollywood expects me to accept as stories, and so I have moved a little closer to the Malick camp, without quite being sold on the Master a hundred percent. Tree of Life and To the Wonder both fall into the “interesting, yet boring” category, ravishing but at an aesthetic remove dramatically. For instance, we see Affleck and Kurylenko arguing but never hear what they’re fighting about; we see the end of Affleck’s relationship with the second woman (Rachel McAdams) but have no idea why or how it ended. (In voice-over, McAdams whispers dejectedly that Affleck “made it into nothing” with his “lust.” Okay.) Again, I think we’re supposed to take these love affairs as Love Affairs, which in turn signify not mere matters of the heart but the titans of creation and destruction at war within all of us. Or something.

Also, I could be wrong but I believe this is the first Terrence Malick film that’s ever seen the inside of a supermarket. He finds beauty and ecstasy even there. But we don’t find out what groceries the characters buy or why they eat them, and I think that’s a useful thing to keep in mind when approaching this or any Malick film. They’re just in the supermarket.

Antiviral

April 14, 2013

Antiviral.jpg.scaled696-940x380Is it strictly fair to judge a young artist’s work against the work of his or her parent? In some cases the notion seems irrelevant. Sofia Coppola, for instance, has made her own distinctive mark with films rather unlike those by her father Francis. If Brandon Cronenberg had been consciously interested in stepping out of the shadow of his father David, he might have made a romantic comedy or a western — anything but a sterile, slow-moving biological thriller that unavoidably raises comparisons to Cronenberg pére’s early films like Rabid and Shivers. Cronenberg fils has written and directed Antiviral, in which celebrity-obsessed people pay to be infected with viruses that came from their favorite stars.

There’s a seed of satire in this, but only a seed. Cronenberg doesn’t have much to say about celebrity culture or its reductio ad absurdum in the form of fans vying to catch a famous strain of herpes (or lining up to eat artificial steaks cloned from the muscle cells of stars). Most of Antiviral is a poky and mannered affair focusing on Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones), an employee of the Lucas Clinic who smuggles celeb viruses in his own body. He becomes fixated on ailing star Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon), who’s dying of a mystery virus. The body-consciousness of the premise links Antiviral to your choice of David Cronenberg films, including Videodrome and even Crash, in which some of the characters wanted to re-enact famous celebrity car accidents. It was funnier there.

That’s definitely one thing missing: humor, or at least wit. David Cronenberg can do deadpan with the best of them, but there’s an active and playful imagination behind the poker face. People may have talked and acted like the undead in Crash, but the quiet, subversive comedy lay in the contrast between the characters’ dry-ice demeanor and the outrageous situations they put themselves in, helplessly and obsessively. In Antiviral, everyone wanders around as if underwater, inside hermetically-sealed compositions that scream “art movie.” The young David Cronenberg did this sort of thing in his early student films, but he had the sense and the mercy to keep them an hour or shorter. This goddamn thing crawls along for an hour and fifty minutes, with little to look at for long stretches except the unpleasant, stringy-haired, mush-mouthed Caleb Landry Jones as he limps around scowling and eventually drooling blood.

Oh, yes, it does get bloody. We see dark gore being vomited up a number of times, or coughed up, or smeared onto gleaming white walls. After a while we come to look forward to the red, because it’s a change from the movie’s relentless black-on-white color scheme. Almost everyone in the movie is pale, too, and I suppose the only reason the filmmakers didn’t go all the way and shoot in black and white was that the movie would’ve looked even more pretentious than it already does. Everyone whispers, and what little music we get is discordant noise, and aesthetically the whole thing is like being stuck in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There’s no life here, no passion, and we certainly don’t care about Syd March’s ill-defined mission to find out about that mystery virus. Antiviral is what happens when you make a movie around a fleetingly interesting idea but forget to find a story in it.

About an hour into it, Malcolm McDowell turns up as a doctor treating Hannah Geist, and we lean towards him gratefully. He doesn’t camp it up — he’s as quiet as everyone else — but the simple theatrical snap of his voice is a blessing. Antiviral is anti-entertainment in a way that even David Cronenberg’s most stubbornly interiorized work never is; it’s boring. I hate to say this; David Cronenberg himself has long since abandoned this type of body-politic chiller, and I’d hoped that his son might have the chops to pick up the mantle. But if anyone not related to Cronenberg had made Antiviral, I’d have the same complaints. Perhaps now that Brandon Cronenberg has gotten this out of his system, he’ll feel free to make his own way, his own movies.

Melancholia

November 13, 2011

In Melancholia, which has just gotten a theatrical release after a month of playing on cable on-demand, it’s the end of the world as we know it and Kirsten Dunst feels fine. It’s about the only time she does feel fine. As Justine, an unreachably depressed young woman, Dunst takes her place alongside a gallery of other female sufferers in the work of writer-director Lars von Trier. Like those others, Dunst puts in a career-best performance, sinking under the weight of self-lacerating despair. Justine’s condition is never explained, as it often isn’t explained in life (although her parents are played by John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling — there’s a big clue right there). In the movie’s first half, she gamely tries to slog through her wedding party, and the people closest to her, like her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), know full well how much work goes into each empty smile.

That the world ends in Melancholia — extinguished by a rogue planet also called Melancholia — is revealed in the opening moments; we get squished to the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which recurs throughout the film as the wayward green ball in the sky draws closer. After that, we endure the wedding party, held at the sumptuous country house of Claire’s filthy-rich husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who fancies himself an armchair astronomer. Justine has married Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), a well-meaning dud who comes off as though Andy from Parks and Recreation had wandered into an apocalyptic art film. He doesn’t last long. In the second half, Justine, having shed Michael and most of what’s left of her sanity, is living with Claire and John and their little son. As Melancholia bears down, the formerly stable Claire grows more and more frantic — John assures her the planet will harmlessly pass by, but she can’t bring herself to believe him — and Justine seems more and more placid. Her life is already over. Global death is just a formality.

Von Trier went through a period of depression a few years ago, and he worked it out in his previous film, the notorious Antichrist, in which nature seemed charged by grotesque and demonic energy. Melancholia is something of a bookend piece, equally gorgeous, not nearly as physically appalling, but almost as disturbing. It’s not a “horror movie,” exactly, but few images at the movies this year have been as frightening as the view of Melancholia growing larger in five-minute intervals through a handmade planet-viewer. At heart, it’s an epic about response to life and death. John, of course, seeks to master the mystery, just like Willem Dafoe in Antichrist and all the other clueless men in the von Trier portfolio. (The filmmaker gets tarred with the “misogynist” brush a lot, but his men are idiots and his women routinely win his actresses top prizes.) Claire clings to her life so tightly she can’t bear the thought of nothingness, while Justine has burned through despair into a kind of Zen-Buddhist shrug. If Antichrist was written in the throes of depression, Melancholia is a report on the condition after the fact.

The symbolism may strike some as a little neat: Melancholia has been “hiding behind the sun,” and then it emerges, blocking out everything else — much like the mood it’s named after. The entire grandly morose film could be read as a suicidal woman’s reverie on her own world ending. (Many depressives, squeamish about taking the final step off the ledge, fantasize about a vast catastrophe that will take their decision and their responsibility out of their hands.) But von Trier’s filmmaking, as always, is elegantly alive, never sodden with the script’s significance. The first half, well-populated by von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, tosses in enough eccentricities (what’s up with John Hurt tucking spoons into his jacket pocket?) to counteract Justine’s moping. The second half is sparser and stiller, focusing on the sisters and their emotional preparation for doom.

Images may stick with you: a horse falling to the ground in extreme slow motion; Claire attempting to outrace the apocalypse in a golf cart; Kirsten Dunst’s features ravaged by loathing. Those looking for sharp internal logic should look elsewhere. Lars von Trier uses a literal worldwide disaster as a backdrop for a tiny, specific personal story about a woman who’s sick of pretending to be happy and who can’t help throwing everything away, cutting herself off from life so definitively that the end of the world is just the last of a lifelong list of things she can’t control. Giving up the illusion of control has delivered her into a kind of grace. Justine has already died every time the hated sun has risen yet again; soon it will all be over. Von Trier’s plotting isn’t always up to the level of his visuals or his emotionally-loaded philosophizing, but on the increasingly timid stage of world cinema he continues to be a giant among ants.

Enter the Void

October 2, 2010

A lot of Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void unfolds through the eyes of its protagonist Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) — literally. The camera takes his point of view to the extent of blinking when he blinks. I, on the other hand, spent much of the two hour-and-18-minute running time not blinking. Enter the Void is not for the impatient (or those susceptible to motion sickness, since Noé’s vertiginous camera swirls around near-constantly during the last hour or so); it’s a massive, epic experiment that asks and presumes to answer the biggest of big questions — what happens after you die? Oscar, a low-level American drug dealer living in Tokyo with his exotic-dancer sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), is shot by police early on in the film, and most of the subsequent narrative follows his soul, or his spirit, or whatever, as it floats around Tokyo keeping tabs on the people he knew in life. There’s his scruffy friend Alex (Cyril Roy), who has a crush on Linda. There’s one of his buyers Vincent (Olly Alexander), whose mother has slept with Oscar on the sly. There’s his supplier Bruno (Ed Spear), said to have strange predilections involving ripe young buyers. We also travel with Oscar into his past, marred by his parents’ car accident when he and Linda were very young, and scarred by their resultant lack of development — Oscar has a definite mother/sister/breast fixation, and Linda herself likes to kiss Oscar in a decidedly unsisterly way.

If you’re going to make a lengthy meditation on life and afterlife, you might as well set it in the seamy sections of neon-drenched Tokyo, present a drug dealer and a stripper as your leads, and top it all off with gouts of state-of-the-art fractal eye-fucks. (I’d hardly expect a bold filmmaker to tell this story from the viewpoint of a film critic. Blink, watch a movie, blink, eat some pizza and surf the web, blink, write the review…) Enter the Void is a monster, often mesmerizing, sometimes trying. Noé, author of the polarizing and galvanizing I Stand Alone and Irreversible, sets the movie up as his grand statement, the dense volume his other work was leading up to. It attempts to nail down, in pure-cinema vocabulary, the highest of high mysteries — the eternal yin/yang connection between sex and death, eros and thanatos.

Nobody will remember this for the performances, although Paz de la Huerta’s furiously grieving Linda has a formidable freak-out, and the non-actor Cyril Roy makes something scuzzily amiable out of Alex. Nathaniel Brown, another non-actor, is blank in a way that works for the film, since Oscar’s experience is supposed to be ours (and we hardly ever see anything other than the back of his head anyway). The Oscar’s-POV style pulls us into his head, and even if we wouldn’t do what he does, or don’t share his particular psychological quirks, we’re with him by cinematic default. The look of the film is by turns grainy, razor-sharp, blurry, elegiac, normal, neon-strobe hell. Whatever team gets to master this beast for Blu-ray has their work cut out for them. Oh, and at one point we and Oscar go on a floating tour through the “Love Hotel,” where various couples go at it joyously or joylessly, their naughty bits glowing or giving off wafts of sexual energy visible, I suppose, only to voyeuristic spirits.

Enter the Void takes us up to the moment of death and beyond — convincingly, I guess; certainly nobody else has conducted an inquiry into these matters at such length and at such an intense pitch. The movie is metaphysically disorienting — you carry it with you after it’s over, because you’re still blinking, and you still feel as though you’re in Oscar’s headspace. Noé clearly expended an inhuman amount of effort and imagination and post-production elbow grease; if he announced that this would be his swan song, I wouldn’t be surprised — how do you follow up Enter the Void? The film will strike viewers as brilliant and profound, or vapid and pretentious, in roughly equal measure, much like Noé’s other work; it can stand alongside recent cult epics like Synecdoche, New York and Inception, and may even come within semen-spurting distance of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski — poet-philosophers who brought their rigorous yet becalmed vision to bear on the essence of this trip we’re all on.

A gauntlet has been thrown here, I feel. Noé is not the first to try the individual tricks here, but the way he puts them all together, in service of something far larger than just a movie, is ferociously and uniquely his own. Whether you adore or loathe it, it takes a fearless, barrier-shattering behemoth like this film to kick a slumbering cinema up a step or two. Enter the Void is a real next-level achievement.

Life During Wartime

July 4, 2010

Less amusing than despairing, Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to his controversial 1998 gem Happiness, tracks its people through a haze of regret and trauma. The movie uses many of the same characters from Happiness, played here by different actors, and I suspect anyone who hasn’t seen the earlier film will be a little lost through this one. Happiness haunts Life During Wartime like a ghost, and indeed there are possible ghosts in the movie, accusatory spirits drifting into people’s lives. The film’s working title was Forgiveness, and that — and the lack thereof — is the theme here.

Fans of Happiness may recall that it focused on three adult sisters: suburban housewife Trish (Cynthia Stevenson in ‘98, Allison Janney now), flustered singleton Joy (Jane Adams then, Shirley Henderson now), and tortured poet Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle then, Ally Sheedy now). Trish’s husband turned out to be a pedophile, Joy flitted from one dysfunctional man to another, and Helen developed a strange thing for Allan (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a perv who sexually harassed random women over the phone. Here, Allan (now played by Michael K. Williams) is married to Joy, though he hasn’t quite given up his twisted proclivities, and Trish is trying to forget ex-husband Bill (Ciaran Hinds), who’s just out of jail and wants to make sure his now-college-age son Billy (Chris Marquette) won’t follow in his footsteps.

Like the first film, Life During Wartime is full of endless ghastly conversations that redefine “awkward.” Trish’s 13-year-old middle son Timmy, for instance, asks her precisely how it is that pedophilic men can rape boys if they have the same parts. Or take Joy, visited by pathetic former flame Andy (Jon Lovitz in the first movie, Paul Reubens here), who killed himself after she dumped him; her husband has unwittingly bought her (on eBay) the same ashtray Andy gave her and then took back in Happiness. (I took one look at that ashtray and was probably as chilled as Joy is.) The restless spirit Andy wants to rekindle things, and, rebuffed, he launches once again into desperate vituperation (remember Lovitz’s “You’re shit. I’m champagne”?).

I doubt that Solondz, whose dyspeptic yet precise control never wavers, is taking the film into the paranormal; Andy and other dark figures from the past (including Bill, a walking, breathing ghost) symbolize past guilt and heartbreak that will never die. Solondz continues to make films as though it were still the mid-’90s and there were actually an audience for this sort of intractably bleak art-house film. I’m stunned, yet glad, that anyone gave him the money to make this movie, which offers little or no hope for its characters and very few laughs that aren’t choked gargles of disbelief. (The film should probably be seen with an audience if possible, just to hear the collective discomfort in the room.)

Again and again, people ask for forgiveness or question whether it’s possible in some cases. What does Solondz think? He doesn’t say. He just puts us among these walking dead and lets us observe them cringing their way through the long days and longer nights. Life During Wartime lacks the stinging clarity of Happiness, and its abbreviated running time makes it feel more like an addendum than a second volume, but it’s still galvanizingly perverse enough to stand out in what may be, so far, the blandest movie year in recent memory.

Antichrist

October 22, 2009

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a rarity: a great film that I will never, ever subject myself to again. The physical and emotional anguish on display here has not been exaggerated. Von Trier has used a story of grief — Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as parents devastated by the loss of their toddler son — as a jumping-off point for what I can only call gender horror. On a surface level, Antichrist is Don’t Look Now for the torture-porn era. Many will be content to leave it at that, and I do not blame them, for to apply a close reading to such a painful and disagreeable work is to grant it longer passage in one’s head than one really wants to allow. This movie hurts to watch and to think about.

Reporting from Cannes, where Antichrist got its share of boos and withering reviews, Roger Ebert broke out the religious metaphysics. The film, he theorized, unfolds in an alternate universe where Satan, not God, created the world. Therefore, the suffering the husband and wife (they are identified in the credits only as He and She) inflict on each other is par for the course in the movie’s reality. There will doubtless be other readings. Nice try, but what Ebert and future critics might seek to do is to flee from the film into the safety and rationality of interpretation and symbology. Anything can be made palatable if you abstract it enough.

The wife is practically insane with grief and guilt — the couple, you see, had been making passionate love when their little son climbed up onto a window and fell to his death. The husband is a therapist, and at first, encouraged by Dafoe’s soft-spoken and tender performance, we think that surely he will understand her; surely he will help her through her torment. But she accuses him of arrogance — he dismisses her psychiatrist as unseasoned and too quick to dump meds onto her pain. He may be right, or he may be jealous. She falls into anxious hysterics, and he deduces that her problem is fear. But fear of what? It would seem that the worst thing she could’ve imagined has already happened.

Without getting into spoilers, Antichrist appears to be a dread-ridden meditation on misogyny and its deranging effects on male and female alike. Von Trier may be looking in the mirror here: he has long been accused of making his screen women — Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman, Bryce Dallas Howard, and now Charlotte Gainsbourg — suffer for the delectation of the art-house crowd. (Is it relevant that none of these actresses have been better than they were under von Trier’s pitiless tutelage? Sexist or not, von Trier — like David Lynch — gives actresses roles they can hit out of the park.) The key here may be the subject of the wife’s aborted thesis paper: “gynocide,” or the systematic oppression, demonization and destruction of women over the centuries. The husband approaches the wife’s pain with the poor hegemonic tools of “rationality,” reducing her to a child by way of “games” and “role-playing” to break her out of her “fear.” But what she fears can’t be talked out in therapy. (Therapist = the rapist.)

Von Trier throws in many uncanny and bizarre touches, like “the three beggars” (pain, grief, despair) in the form of mutilated or self-mutilating forest animals. The husband takes the wife to “Eden,” a cottage in the woods where she had gone the previous summer with their child, hoping to finish her paper. The cottage seems constantly attacked by nature: there’s a steady hail of acorns thundering down onto the roof. The wind, in the wife’s mind, becomes the breath of Satan. She is in hell, for reasons we will slowly gather. The rumbling, ominous soundtrack and occasional camera fixations (a slow zoom into a flower vase in a hospital room, for instance) recall Lynch, but elsewhere von Trier uses his trademark handheld style and jump-cuts. The effect, as always with this provocateur, is to keep us unbalanced.

What does von Trier feel about women? I don’t know. He probably doesn’t either, which is why he keeps making films about them. By showing them in extremis, he may hope to get at some sort of female truth. His women are insane because they exist in an insane system, and by lashing out violently, like an R.D. Laing construct, they become purified in their madness. Von Trier makes deadly serious psychodramas with complex heroines who alienate us because we’re part of the system they’re rejecting. In Antichrist, the gender conflict reaches a particularly excruciating pitch. It is true philosophical horror, hard to shake off and harder, I suspect, for many to justify.

But here we are retreating into interpretation. Is the film, past a certain point, meant to be taken literally? I doubt it. Are the things we’re seeing actually happening? There comes a point in the narrative when we seem to be witnessing ancient hatreds and grievances acted out; the quotation marks around some of the events are almost visible. I’ve seen appalled lists of the various offenses to the flesh in Antichrist, but such a litany misses the point. It’s a film of ideas, not shocks. It’s also a nightmare movie, not subject to waking logic or the usual immediate, derisive response to challenging art. The film may have a maximalist meaning — He and She are all men, all women — or it may simply be a heightened emotional portrait of the aftermath of grief. Only von Trier knows for sure, except I’m not sure he does.

The movie is a workout, definitely. It will be condemned, praised, argued about. It feels like von Trier getting down to the distilled basics of what he’s always been driving at — it feels like a summing-up. It is also more frightening, of course, than most of the “horror movies” you snicker at in the multiplex. Those movies really just want to horse around, give you a good time, make you jump and laugh. Antichrist is the real deal. 5

A Serious Man

October 2, 2009

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been predictable in their unpredictability. They followed their bleak Oscar-winning drama No Country for Old Men with the star-studded goof Burn After Reading, and now they have made A Serious Man, an unclassifiable, vaguely apocalyptic tragedy-farce with hardly any name actors. The film’s closest antecedent in the Coen portfolio is probably 1991’s Barton Fink, another bizarre, deadpan-surreal account of the nightmares of a hapless, bespectacled Jew. This time, though, the Jewishness is right out front — the movie is about man’s insufficient understanding of the unknowable God. “Accept the mystery,” advises one character.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Minnesotan physics teacher circa 1967, seems to have taken on the modern version of the suffering of Job. His wife is dumping him for another man (and kicking him out of the house); his teenage kids are obnoxious; his brother (Richard Kind) sits around working on some incomprehensible mathematical theory when he’s not draining his sebaceous cyst. (My first thought: pus was also a motif in Barton Fink. My second thought: only in the Coens’ work would pus be a motif.) Larry wonders why all this is happening to him. His (and others’) agonized refrain is “I haven’t done anything.” Visits to various rabbis bring no relief. Neither does a brief, fruitless flirtation with a next-door neighbor who sunbathes nude and offers iced tea, pot, and maybe herself.

The title is, naturally, ironic. The slick old man who’s cuckolding Larry is referred to as a serious man, and Larry says he’s tried to be one. But truly, nobody can be serious in such a capricious universe as the one the Coens present. The atmosphere and milieu — the bland furnishings, the usual razor-sharp sound design and immaculate photography by Roger Deakins — are gracefully evoked. Even here, in their mystical-obscure mode, the Coens work cleanly and rigorously. The cast, mostly unknown to moviegoers, blends into the slightly heightened reality. We get a sense of fragile order barely holding off disaster. Sometimes, like Barton Fink, the style is like nothing so much as a high-toned intellectual horror movie.

The prologue sets the tone: an old Jewish fable (made up by the Coens) involving a dead man, or dybbuk, who comes calling one snowy night. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but thematically it prepares us for the uncanny. Later, a rabbi tells the supposedly true story of a dentist who discovered “Help me” engraved in Hebrew on the back of a patient’s teeth. Larry briefly takes that admonition to heart, for all the good that does him. In A Serious Man, omens appear from nowhere and seem to signify nothing. So why are they there? It’s probably no accident that Larry teaches physics and is first seen lecturing on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous quantum-mechanics paradox illustrating the uncertainty principle: the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead. So is Larry; so, maybe, is God, or at least the God in the movie.

Pontypool

May 29, 2009

This review might kill or infect someone, so I have to be careful. In Pontypool, the English language itself is a courier for rabid undeath. People all over the snowy Ontario community come down with some sort of verbal virus, which makes them repeat certain words over and over, leading to madness and then flailing cannibalism. Are they zombies? The word seems imprecise. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, refers to them as “conversationalists.”

The movie is based on Tony Burgess’ 1997 novel Pontypool Changes Everything, a gorgeously composed experiment in wordplay. (Often, it’s as if the very book itself is being assaulted from within by its own language, and the reader experiences a heady form of disorientation.) It’s also highly subjective and episodic and as such impossible to adapt. So Burgess pulled one of the characters, radio DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), and put him at the center of a minimalist story in which he and a few others are trapped in a church basement (where Grant’s station is set up) during the “conversationalist” outbreak in Pontypool.

McHattie, an always-intriguing character actor, carries Pontypool with grace and ease. Grant, a saturnine DJ whose motto is “Take no prisoners,” likes to rant on the air and stir things up; he’s been fired from one gig and is starting over again at this literal bottom-drawer station, with the help of manager Sydney (Lisa Houle) and local-hero intern Laurel (Georgina Reilly). Odd reports start filtering into the news segments, and before long the infection has found its way inside the station. The plague finds its root in Grant’s very livelihood, which he and the others must renounce or work around if they hope to survive.

Pontypool, ironically, takes its cue from the lulling rhythms of McHattie’s speech. It is, if you will, a thinking person’s zombie movie, which in practice means the gore level is low and the dialogue level (up to a certain point) is high. It’s never boring, though; McHattie and Lisa Houle have an amusingly confrontational rapport, and as the outside threat ramps up, the tension builds realistically. A solution is proposed, but who knows if it will work?

Pontypool sort of loses focus towards the end, as if the screenwriting software had succumbed to the virus. But it’s still an entertaining cerebral chiller wherein language both loses and gains meaning — a true horror film for those who care about words. 4

The Limits of Control

May 1, 2009

The title of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control may, like anything else in the film, have multiple meanings. I’ve seen a reading summing up the movie as the main character’s dream, where control is arbitrary. Here’s my take. A thriller director is all about control — control of his effects, control of the audience’s emotions. This is an anti-thriller, though still rigorously controlled. The audience, too, wants control — they want to stay ahead of the narrative, they want certain tropes observed and followed. There are, however, limits to that control, and most critics have run head-first into them.

The Limits of Control, it must be said, is beautifully made. Once I gave up my own control — once I stopped willing the movie to be what I wanted it to be (whatever that might have been; this wasn’t my first Jarmusch, I knew what I was in for) — I went with the smooth, unhurried flow of it, the trancelike repetitions and rituals. The unnamed protagonist (Isaach De Bankolé), we gather, is some sort of hired syndicate man. He arrives in Spain and goes from place to place, meeting various contacts at outdoor cafe tables. They always say what I guess is a code phrase: “You don’t speak any Spanish, right?” They go off on tangents involving various disciplines — music, art, film, science. They trade matchboxes with him, give him instructions regarding the next contact, and leave. He takes a piece of paper out of the matchbox, reads the inscrutable code, eats the paper, and washes it down with a sip of espresso.

The man stays in various rooms, doing tai chi or lying sleeplessly on his bed. A frequently nude woman (Paz de la Huerta) seems to be following him around; she wants sex with him, but he says no, not while he’s working. He also wanders around various museums, looking at art that seems relevant to the current stage of his mission. Along the way, he meets guest stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael García Bernal. Finally he reaches the well-fortified heart of darkness, occupied by a bad-tempered Bill Murray, as appropriate a Kurtz for Jarmusch’s slow, deadpan journey as anyone.

Every frame is immaculate. Whatever else the film may be, it’s not ineptly directed. Jarmusch goes all the way into his mode of minimalist Euro-cool. Yet there’s an undertone of sadness; it’s not a hip, unfeeling film. The man comes from nowhere and does not allow himself the comfort of sex or even normal interaction. His sit-downs with his contacts are always one-sided; they hold forth and then leave him. The closest the man comes to being animated is when he visits an after-hours flamenco cafe. Even there, a phrase about death and hubris recurs.

People have been impatiently unkind to The Limits of Control, as if they were somehow expecting something else from the man who’s supervised some of the quietest, most deadpan genre-killers ever made. We’re at the 72-minute mark before anything remotely thriller-ish happens — as in any sense of onscreen peril — and the moment is swept away and never spoken of again. I suppose it’s been marketed foolishly; even the DVD cover promises “a stylish and sexy new thriller” that “simmers with heat and suspense.” Well, how else are they going to sell this thing? “Packed with existential ennui! Nothing happens for over an hour! A must-see!” At least Nathan Lee’s back-cover blurb is honest: “The ultimate Jim Jarmusch movie!” It does feel like something he’s been working towards, entering a genre and consciously leaving out the conventionally diverting bits. Even the poky Dead Man and Ghost Dog had occasional spasms of violence to keep the popcorn-chewers awake.

I’d say the movie is best read as the concluding panel of the trilogy begun by those earlier films. Each has an iconic figure of few words who walks gracefully among the brutal and corrupt. The Limits of Control is a Zen gangster film, a mandala that scatters itself at the end. Its very quietude and uneventfulness force you into the moment every moment, and if you don’t want to be there, don’t blame the messenger.

Synecdoche, New York

October 24, 2008

An early exchange between theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his bored artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) represents one possible way into Synecdoche, New York. He talks about the 560 lighting setups in his latest play, and says “I don’t know why I make it so complicated.” She says “Because that’s what you do.”

That’s also what Charlie Kaufman does. His previous scripts (if you’re reading this, you probably know them) were intricate head games. So is this one, Kaufman’s directorial debut. This writer divides critics and serious moviegoers the way the Coens used to; some call him brilliant, others dismiss him as a solipsist in thrall to his own cleverness. In truth, Kaufman can’t be that up himself if even some other people dig what he does, and not all of those people are poseurs trying to be hipper-than-thou. Kaufman’s subject is creation as destruction, or vice versa. Even if you’re not a screenwriter making stubbornly un-Hollywood films, there’s always something in Kaufman’s work to hook into.

On the simplest level, without all the complications, Synecdoche, New York is about the compulsion to do something major, something to be remembered by, before you die. Towards this end, some people have kids; some go into sports; some climb into a tower and shoot people; Caden wants to mount the ultimate theater piece, a massive work that says everything about life — because that’s what he does. Of course, he turns it into a gargantuan simulacrum of his own life, hiring an actor to play him, and then hiring an actor to play the actor who plays him, and so on. In one of the better meta-jokes, an actress is needed to play Hazel (Samantha Morton), the theater’s receptionist and Caden’s on-again off-again lover, so he hires Tammy (Emily Watson) — possibly Kaufman’s goof on every critic who’s had trouble distinguishing Samantha Morton from Emily Watson. (Including me, at times.)

After years and years of rehearsals, one of the actors finally asks Caden, “When do we get an audience?” A fair question. Caden’s project doesn’t seem conceived for an audience. Neither does Kaufman’s, or at least not a mass audience; Synecdoche‘s widest release was 119 theaters, and it grossed $3 million against a $21 million cost. Eventually, though, people will find their way to Kaufman’s simulacrum. Too weighty to be codified as a “cult film,” Synecdoche could be called The Portable Charlie Kaufman — his magnum opus, with equal attention paid to integrity of art and integrity of stool samples. If your life is devoted to communicating what’s in your head, life will always bring you back down to earth, with undignified diseases and reminders that you’re going to end up as maggot food like everyone else, so if you want a shot at any kind of immortality you’d better look at Caden as your A-number-one cautionary tale.

Is Caden’s perpetually unrealized project a metaphor for writer’s block, or more generally any thwarted desire in life? God knows Caden can’t get no satisfaction anywhere else. His wife Adele takes off to Germany with their daughter Olive, who grows up rapidly offscreen; seemingly overnight she’s years older. Synecdoche plays fast and loose with chronology, right from the first scene, as if time weren’t just passing Caden by but actively fleeing from him. Caden is alternately chastened and soothed by the many women in his life, and this is where Kaufman deserves a feather in his cap for making a film with juicy roles for Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, and Robin Weigert (vivid in a late scene as the adult Olive).

Synecdoche is full of bizarre misunderstandings as well as enough surreal bits of business (Caden sitting in a German alley weeping while holding a big pink box with a nose drawn on it) to power five movies. Kaufman has always struck me as a profoundly generous writer, packing his scripts with far more than can be caught upon a single viewing. This Roark-esque chunk of storytelling architecture, which at one point depicts a warehouse inside a warehouse, takes as its landscape the many-chambered human brain in all its squalor and splendor, its debilitating illogic and cruel logic. Like Caden’s project, it’s about everything — or, at least, it’s about what you allow it to be about (the impatient, or non-fans of Kaufman’s other mindscapes, will say it’s about nothing).

Caden’s project has grown beyond him, which can be the best thing to happen to an anal-retentive creator or the worst, or both at once. Eventually he gives up control to a late-inning character (Dianne Wiest) who ends up giving him orders through an earpiece, including but not limited to how to wipe after taking a dump. He has, in effect, become a supporting character in his own story after failing at playing God for decades. It’s then that he realizes that, according to the film’s (perhaps too explicitly stated) summation, everyone is the main character of his/her own story, and also supporting characters or even just nameless extras in everyone else’s story.

Either you swim around happily in the world according to Kaufman or you don’t. I did. Every scene is pitched at the highest level and acted accordingly (Keener, as always, is a standout, and Hoffman carries the whole unwieldy vision on his strong, beefy shoulders — he does amazing things physically throughout). Kaufman makes a smooth transition to the God spot of filmmaking, helped enormously by ace cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who’s worked with Lynch (on Blue Velvet, no less), Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Todd Solondz and so knows his way around difficult independent films. (Hilariously, Elmes’ follow-up to Synecdoche was Bride Wars, which, well, y’know, Elmes has to eat.) Synecdoche, like Lynch’s Inland Empire, is a big, thick tone poem (an epic tone poem?) that hops between so many classifications — comedy, tragedy, fantasy, horror, realism, surrealism — it ultimately forges its own genre, or sui generis. You’d probably have to go back to Fellini’s to find anything remotely like it, though the end result is undiluted, original Kaufman.

On a petty, personal note (why not? especially with this film) I should hate this movie. I first came across the word “synecdoche” in a book about art terms, and was instantly taken with it; I thought it would make a great title for something, and filed it away for possible use for … something. When I heard about Synecdoche, New York — the title is a pun on Schenectady, Caden’s stomping grounds — I had two reactions: Damn, if someone was going to snag that title, it was going to be Charlie Kaufman; and damn, if anyone deserves to snag that title, it’s Charlie Kaufman.

This review is necessarily shabby and incomplete, written as it is after only one viewing. I let it stand as it is, and will reserve future screenings for myself only, for my own selfish pleasure. I will resist, if possible, the temptation to go back and revise my words here to reflect anything else I’ve picked up from subsequent journeys to Synecdoche. Anyway, I’ve chewed it enough; what it means, or doesn’t mean, should really be between you and you.


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