Archive for August 2018

Madeline’s Madeline

August 11, 2018

MadelinesMadelineThose of you whose craving for experimental actors flailing around wasn’t quite sated by Who’s Crazy might want to discover Madeline’s Madeline. An elliptical art-house film, the third such effort by writer/director Josephine Decker, the movie centers on a difficult girl, Madeline (Helena Howard), who has fallen in with a New York theatrical troupe. The group’s director Evangeline (Molly Parker) keeps asking her players — all of whom except sixteen-year-old Madeline are adults — to express their inner pigs or cats or turtles while circling around a vague theme that always seems to be changing.

Madeline, who has a history of mental illness, butts heads often with her brittle mom Regina (Miranda July), who’s a bit overprotective and knows less and less what to make of her daughter the older Madeline gets. At one point, at a gathering at Evangeline’s house, Madeline confides in Evangeline’s nonplussed partner that she’s thinking of losing her virginity for her seventeenth birthday. The movie is made up of awkward interactions like that, and there’s one sequence near the end, when Madeline is encouraged to act out the part of her impatient mother while Regina sits watching in agony, that practically demands we avert our eyes in discomfort.

Is Madeline’s Madeline enjoyable? It took me a good while, maybe half an hour, to get used to its diffuse style — Ashley Connor’s cinematography takes us very close in and glides in and out of focus — and its emphasis on shrill, bouncing acting exercises, which I generally find embarrassing. Gradually, though, a portrait coalesces out of jagged pieces, of a girl casting about for a self. Who is Madeline? A daughter? An actor? A student (she goes to regular school, where we hear that kids make fun of her, but we never see her there)? Who is her real mother — Regina or Evangeline? The theater director always seems on the verge of flipping into a cult leader, but it turns out she’s just trying to hold everything together — her theater project, her life, her marriage. The evident fact that Evangeline is more or less based on Josephine Decker does not escape notice.

Most of the critical attention has focused on Helena Howard as Madeline, as well it should — hers is a guileless, open performance hungry for revelation. That climactic bit Madeline does about her mother is like a lightning bolt of clarity slashing through a humid fog of repressed, ignored emotion. It’s also something of a centerpiece, an actor’s moment handed to Howard on a platter, and she runs with it. The movie is completely an actors’ film, built to be warmly hospitable to its players — though with efforts like this, you never can tell if Decker, like Evangeline, is running all sorts of vulnerability games meant to extract raw truth from an actor like a rotten tooth out of a suffering jaw. Howard is obliged to spit out a few such teeth, not without emotional blood. The true test will be how well she aligns with a film not so snugly fashioned to her particular set of skills. (Though, please, keep her clear of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

If your first response to oblique films like this when the end credits roll is “Will someone tell me what that was about?,” you should probably give Madeline’s Madeline a wide berth. Even I, who perhaps has more patience than most for artsy doodling, sighed and checked my watch once or twice. But if you enjoy the soft-grained, difficult, probing nature of Decker’s film — and I did, for the most part — it pays off in quiet, almost peripheral ways. The various problems of the characters don’t lead to drama or even resolution; they just add to the fabric of the piece and give the actors something to work with. The ending might be ambiguously happy, Decker’s way of saying she’d be gratified if her art got out of her control and became its own thing. The last shot expresses freedom while literally leaving us behind to think about it.

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The Last Temptation of Christ

August 5, 2018

lasttemptation_89_033_current_mediumEnough, I think, was written about the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ when it opened thirty years ago this August 12. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather skip all that, except to say that the outrage showed a thunderous lack of understanding of context and of literary inquiry. The movie, and its source novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, imagined a Christ confronted on the cross by an angel (Satan) who offers him escape into the life of a normal man, a life with wives and children and, yes, lovemaking. Christ’s agonized mind turns this possibility over at length — the possibility of simple human contentment — until finally he realizes and embraces his literally God-given role, and finds himself back on the cross, radiantly happy as he passes from life into legend.

Last Temptation is director Martin Scorsese’s act of cinematic worship, the movie he had hungered to make since boyhood. Of course, most of his films have that stream of Catholic blood and guilt running through them. Again and again in Scorsese’s work we see men (he has never, with a couple of exceptions, been interested enough in women to put them front and center) sinning yet yearning for redemption, or at least respect or peace or a point at which they can rest assured that “it is accomplished,” whatever it may be. The movie is imperfect — its colloquial dialogue and casting of homely urban types and musicians (hey, John Lurie! hello, Victor Argo!) as the apostles bring it, at times, perilously close to camp. But it doesn’t need to be perfect.

Much of the movie’s soul can be traced to the long and many disputatious talks between Jesus (Willem Dafoe) and Judas (Harvey Keitel). Dafoe seems to be experiencing the same insecurity and fear playing Jesus as Jesus himself feels — Dafoe and Jesus both have to grow into their roles. Keitel, for his part, approaches Judas with the same spiritual anguish he brought to The Piano and Bad Lieutenant. In this telling, Judas is merely the guy who has to embrace his intolerable role, the betrayer, so that God’s plan for Jesus can proceed. Late in the film, when the elderly former friends meet again in Jesus’ mortal bedroom, Keitel makes us feel the betrayal Judas feels — he has betrayed his master as ordered, only to see that act of love rendered meaningless when Jesus chooses the life of a man. We first see these two together when Judas is chastising Jesus the carpenter for building crosses for the Romans. Here is a Jesus in need of redemption.

Dafoe and Keitel, and also Barbara Hershey (who gave the book to Scorsese in the first place) as the Magdalene, get to run the gamut of inflamed, wounded emotion. The rest of the cast, eclectic to say the least, sometimes falters in the face of the moment’s importance — some of them, we gather, like the late Call frontman Michael Been, are there out of their own Christian passion. And then David Bowie swans into the picture as Pontius Pilate, unimpressed with what Pilate clearly sees as (sigh) yet another Jewish troublemaker, and the conception and almost comically perfect casting transcend camp (even with Pilate’s deathless, amazing line “We have a space for you up on Golgotha”) and achieve a kind of show-biz nirvana. Bowie takes his few minutes of the film away from Jesus and Scorsese and suavely tucks them in his pocket.

The filmmaking here, though rushed and on the cheap, is a hot stew of influences; Peter Gabriel’s sometimes alarming world-music score, Michael Ballhaus’ savagely unadorned photography of a dusty and near-uninhabitable land, Thelma Schoonmaker’s gliding and intuitive editing — all of it coalesces into a cinematic essay about the violence and chaos, and also the vitality and urgency, of worldly life, the solace Jesus must renounce — the heat and hard dirt floors, the cool fleshly comforts. This renunciation would be meaningless if it were too easy and did not come freighted with self-doubt and conflicting desires. Scorsese manages to make us feel what pulls Jesus towards normality, what he has to give up. We do not see the resurrection; instead, at the climax, the very celluloid itself seems to rupture, shudder, flare into a blood-red death. How else would a director equally indebted to Christ and cinema end such an inquiry?

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