Monday, September 28, 2009

Lorna's Silence

I had never seen a Dardennes brothers movie before this one, and I’m not sure if that gave me an advantage or disadvantage going into Lorna’s Silence. I’ve said before that I like hard movies, but I maybe should have modified that to say that I like hard movies that are interesting; but it’s not really that this is one isn’t interesting...I think it’s more along the lines that it tries a little bit too hard and makes some stylistic choices that are aimed more squarely at esthetics than they are aimed at the practical concerns of telling the story. I also don’t think it’s an especially hard movie - but I do think that it wants to be, and that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had it in the backs of their minds that they were making a hard movie.

We’re dropped into the story already in progress, with Lorna coming back to her apartment and getting ready for bed, fending off an offer from Claudy to play cards. The tension between the two is obvious, although its origins are not. In due course, all becomes clear; but in the early stages you sort of have to tease out for yourself what’s happening and why it’s happening. Jérémie Renier plays Claudy, a Belgian junkie who agreed to marry Albanian Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) for money, so that she could gain Belgian citizenship. Lorna’s part of the quid pro quo is to turn around and marry a Russian so that he can become Belgian.

This is not, however, Utah; so Claudy has to go, first. The Russian brokering the deal, a guy called Fabio, plans to have Claudy offed and to make it look like an overdose. Claudy is trying to quit cold turkey on his own, and junkies are known for their recidivism (paging Scott Weiland) - so Fabio figures it will be no big trick to rig an OD. Lorna, on the other hand, would prefer to go the way of divorce, on the grounds that Claudy beats her. Claudy does not beat her, however - so they have to pretend to have arguments and Claudy has to pretend to hit her, but he’s so strung out and codependent that Lorna can’t manage to get him to hit her. She winds up having to hit herself; and even though this is a little pathetic, there’s a scene where she hits her against the corner of a wall, and it’s incredibly funny - although it’s probably not supposed to be. It just sort of happens, and the humor is in the spontaneity of it, more so than in the actual injury she inflicts upon herself.

Some would argue that a person trying to gain citizenship under false pretenses is not a particularly moral person, and to a certain extent that’s true; but there is a morality to Lorna in spite of that, a sense of attention to right and wrong. It would be easy for her to manipulate Claudy because of his addiciton, but she doesn’t do this; in fact, she makes a reasonable effort to help him get off the drugs, and their relationship evolves to the point that a love scene that would have seemed unlikely early in the picture actually turns out to be entirely organic and extremely poignant when it happens. Unfortunately, this scene - along with most of the natural progression of both the storyline and the character development - is waylaid by a massive temporal cut, around halfway into the picture or so, that is so jarring in terms of continuity that I actually thought the person who had built up the film had gotten the reels mixed up.

That did not turn out to be the case, however. The reels were in the right places, and the story pretty much picked up where it seemed to have left off so abruptly - just a bit further down the line; but it took a hugely melodramatic turn that seemed to shift the tone of all of the characters who had appeared to that point. Lorna, whose morality had been so finely tuned in her relations with Claudy, suddenly became too moral, too eager to tell the truth - to the point that she puts her own life in danger. I don’t want to give anything away, even though I know nobody reading this is going to see this movie (it ain’t in American); and there’s not much more I can tell you about the story without getting into the major plot point on which, a little more than halfway through, the film turns.

The Dardennes seem to be delighted with their minimalism in this film; but the economy of spoken lines combined with their apparenty affinity for hard jump cuts keeps the movie from flowing at a good pace. And the minimalism, wed initially to a kind of gritty realism that spins an effective - if somewhat lethargic - story, jettisons that realism after the monster time cut (and its attendant shifts in plot and tone) and lurches toward the end in the hands of new mistress melodrama. It’s an unwelcome shift, and it undermines a film that initially had some solid promise.

I read a couple of articles about this movie in Film Comment and Cineaste, before I saw the movie, and that may have been a bad thing because I had a pretty good idea of the story going into the picture. The progression of the story and the way the details were filled in during the first act didn’t really get to work on me the way it would have worked on someone who didn’t know anything about the picture ahead of time. I thought Arta Dobroshi did very well playing Lorna, and Jérémie Renier was even better as Claudy, though he wasn’t on screen for very long. But even taking all of that into account, I think the major shift in plot and tone would have turned me off no matter how much I knew or did not know about the movie going into it. That could well change on a second viewing, however. I just don’t know that that would ever happen, especially if I really mean to keep up with catching up on every movie we have ever played.

One week only. (Probably.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deep Thoughts #11

Ken Burns screened part of his national parks doc for President Obama. THAT MEANS PBS IS NOW PUSHING OBAMA’S AGENDA! Somebody call Breitman!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The September Issue

This film will do nothing to disabuse those, who already believe it, of the notion that people who live and work in the fashion industry are pretentious twits. Nor will anyone much doubt that Anna Wintour, who is referred to early in the film either as the “ice queen” or an “ice woman” (I don’t recall which, and I wasn’t taking notes), lives up to either moniker. She is the editor of Vogue (the American one), and the film is the hastily assembled story of the production of that venerable magazine’s annual September issue, which is apparently a big deal in the fashion world. Filmed during the summer of 2007, as Vogue was readying its biggest issue ever - a whopping 840+ page doorstop with Sienna Miller on the cover - the film is an attempt to get inside Vogue and show the audience the non-fiction side of what more people than will see this film saw in The Devil Wears Prada (which was based on a novel written by a former personal assistant to Wintour - although Meryl Streep’s version of Wintour hewed closer to Cruella De Vil than to Charles Montgomery Burns, which is how Wintour comes off in the doc).

Director R.J. Cutler wisely focuses on the magazine more than on Wintour - dealing with her efficiently rather than indulgently (at least in the final cut) - and this is wise because Wintour clearly doesn’t want much of anything to do with this documentary, as evidenced by the economy of her speech and the way she is almost always trying very hard not to look at the camera out of the corner of her eye, particularly when the scene at hand involves anything other than a sycophantic adoration of her. For someone who is referred to (again, early in the film) as the most powerful woman in America, she is terribly uncomfortable being seen - never mind photographed - in anything but the most flattering light. There is precious little information about her background and there are no real confrontations between her and any of her staff or any of the freelance designers who bring work to her; in fact, most of the damning-with-faint-praise bits are done by the magazine’s creative director, Grace Coddington, who would appear to be Wintour’s right-hand woman and one of the few people in the magazine’s Times Square offices who would be permitted to speak candidly to Wintour.

Too bad she never does - or that when she does, she does so meekly and doesn’t press the point. She does a lot of complaining about the bits she has done for the issue, but which Wintour has “killed.” By the end of the film, Grace’s contribution to the issue has been reduced to practically nothing, and we’ve heard her snipe and whine behind the scenes while only occasionally talking about how much she loves fashion and working in the industry - more damning with faint praise. The overarching feeling you get is that no one much likes working at Vogue under Wintour - but that nearly all of them consider it an honor and do it because it means they are the best at what they do.

Okay, I guess. If that’s your thing, who the hell am I to argue? Most documentaries are not going to appeal to a wide audience, and this one is no exception; but to the extent that it upholds Vogue as a good place to be despite the presence of its Führer, the film feels a little more like the Pevensie children defending Narnia from the White Witch - except that in this case, the White Witch has already won the war and has, pretty much to a person, subjugated everyone in her domain. By showing Vogue in this light - and shunting Wintour off to the side, at least a little bit - the film works, even if it isn’t going to reel in very many non-fashionistas and even though it doesn’t (or, more likely, wasn’t permitted to) explain Wintour well enough to pique the interest of the non-fashionistas.

I’ll give it this, though - it sort of made me want to buy an issue of Vogue. I didn’t - but I thought about it, and I could not possibly care less about fashion. Whether I liked the film or not (I didn’t), that it stirred in me at least that much interest means that, for the most part, it works.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Deep Thoughts #10

Anyone know why Wil Wolford has work? Because he’s kinda country, and Colts games are on cowboy radio? It sure isn’t color commentary skill.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Informant!

Electing to watch The Informant!, a corporate crime caper, one day after watching Syriana, a corporate crime thriller (plus international intrigue), was maybe not the best idea I’ve ever had. Neither film really knocked me down, but neither was really bad, either. Both are overly complicated - real life often is, don’tcha know - and both feature Matt Damon; but only The Informant! is a Matt Damon Movie. He plays an executive at Archer Daniels Midland who finds himself caught up in corporate corruption and FBI investigations; and by the end of the film, so many truths and lies have turned backward on themselves that you’re almost sure that the story had to be made up.

But it wasn’t. It actually happened, to Mark Whitacre, back in the 1990s. Steven Soderbergh has crafted a film based on a fictionalized version of events, and he’s mostly done a good job with it. He gets a terrific performance from Damon, who flings himself into the role of hapless corporate stooge with reckless abandon. He has an internal monologue that moves from one thing to another so quickly that you almost can’t keep track of it; and most of what he’s thinking to himself has nothing to do with what’s happening in the picture. Soderbergh uses this personality quirk both to play up the humor - it’s an exceptional bit of screenwriting - and to give the viewer a better sense of who this character is; and by the time we get around to the end, a lot of the events that take place in the picture, and which seem utterly implausible when they are happening, end up feeling reasonably believable when you filter them through the lens of Mark’s inner monologue. Damon probably gets a Golden Globe nomination for his work here - but only because the Globes nominate in the lead acting category for both comedies/musicals and dramas.

The problems with the film are not with the acting or the story, but rather with the techincal aspects. Somewhere along the line, someone decided that Steven Soderbergh was a director with an enormous amount of indie cred. I don’t know how this decision got made, nor who made it. I was not consulted. I don’t know if I would go as far as to call him a hack, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t call him a hack, either. The whole “indie” film thing may well have started with sex, lies, and videotape, but that cinematic capital has got a shelf life.

The first problem is the lighting. You can’t always blame the director for this one, even if the director should be telling the cinematographer how to light the scene and then signing off on it before they roll film; but here you do get to blame the director, because Soderbergh also shot the picture. I’m not a photography person, so I don’t know the technical way to explain this; but Soderbergh did not do a very good job of reducing or eliminating the glare coming from ambient light sources - particularly the sun shining in through windows. The hazy glare occasionally dominated the frame and was exceedingly distracting; and if that haze was supposed to be symbolic of anything, I don’t think it worked. If it was supposed to add anything to what we get of Mark’s mental state, it’s nowhere near as effective as the internal monologue.

Second problem is close-up shots. These are hazy too, which means that the haze probably comes in part from the film stock or maybe a setting on the shutter that altered the exposure (again, not a photography guy, so just guessing here); and they’re not especially contextual, either - often it’s just the head of the character, usually Matt Damon, without a lot of contrast to create any kind of an interesting composition. I would think, though, that those are going to be minor quibbles for most people, if they even notice them at all.

Some technical positives include the score by Marvin Hamlisch, which was kitschy and vaguely nostalgic - along with the colorful titles indicating place and time throughout the picture (the one indicating that the story has moved to Tokyo is drawn vertically, a nod to how Japanese is read), it evoked a sort of post-modern 1970s feel in a 1990s setting. The music was light and airy and almost had an old school video game feel to it - I half expected to hear “Soul Bossa Nova” by Quincy Jones come pouring out of the speakers at various points in the film; and it would not at all have surprised me to have seen a dance number at some point - one that would have fit here in an odd kind of way, the complete opposite of the one at the end of Slumdog Millionaire, which utterly failed. I was also surprised by how much I noticed the way that CRT computer monitors looked anachronistic. They’ve only just gone the way of the dodo in the last five or six years, but seeing them on all those desks gave me the feeling that the picture was set much longer ago than the early-mid 1990s.

This sounds way more negative than my actual impression of the film, and I think that’s mainly because this is a very good comic performance, by Matt Damon, that is situated inside of a film that just isn’t very interesting. I have a hard time making an emotional connection with lying corporate executives who have more money than they could ever spend and yet think they need to keep making more and more of it - at the expense of their customers. Like Jerry Maguire, this film says something ugly about our culture, without any of the anti-heroic romantic overtones of movies like The Godfather. And we’re just supposed to sit back and laugh at it? Give me Al Gore or Michael Moore any day, I think - at least they’re opening eyes and provoking debate by speaking the truth, however exaggerated it may be. This movie just passively makes light of what we the people have allowed this fading republic to become - an oblivious, anachronistic joke.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deep Thoughts #9

All the donkeys braying for Obama’s birth certificate are also braying for the release of the unedited ACORN videos - right?? Sure they are.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Deep Thoughts #8

Maybe that should be the Kanye West Finishing School for Young Gentlemen, not Robert Montgomery Knight Finishing School for Young Gentlemen.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm Not There

I’m curious about anyone’s opinion in general, of course, but I’m especially interested in the opinions of those who have seen this movie and who have no real interest in or identification with the mystique of Bob Dylan - although I don’t imagine there are all that many people out there who land in the space where those two circles converge. The film trades heavily on that mystique, and though the music is there, too, it’s largely in the background, almost an afterthought. (I could be way wrong about this, because there is plenty of music in the film, but that’s the sense I got - that director Todd Haynes, while acknowledging the music through extensive inclusion in the film, put the focus of the film more on the person that the music helped to create and meant, quite specifically, for the music to ride shotgun.) I have the strong impression that this film will not appeal all that much to people who are not, to some degree, fascinated with Bob Dylan.

I count myself among that number, and was interested in the film in that respect; but the cast was also quite strong, and people whose faces I had not expected to see, for whatever reason, kept showing up. It’s possible that I knew they were in the film when we played it, but have since filed that information away somewhere in the back of my head - so it surprised me when, early in the film, Julianne Moore showed up, playing Alice Fabian (Joan Baez). It was also a pleasant surprise to see Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire (Sara Lownds).

Unfortunately, due to the film’s long running time (two hours and fifteen minutes), I did not have a chance to sit down and watch it from beginning to end; in fact, I watched parts of it on three non-consecutive days over the course of the last week, and I am afraid that my appreciation - not to mention comprehension - of the movie suffered beacuse of that. I still liked it - there’s much to like for Dylan geeks - but it never really grabbed me as a totally coherent project. Of course, that could well be a statement about the not particularly coherent life of Bob Dylan - or the early part of that life, at any rate. The film is a stylistic interpretation of Dylan’s life from early adulthood to around the time of the motorcycle accident, and features six different actors playing various “versions” of Dylan. (Four of the six are white men - the other two are a white woman and a young black boy.)

And when I say “stylistic,” what I mostly mean is that film editor Jay Rabinowitz was apparently just let loose to cut and paste as he saw fit. I didn’t get a good sense of the overall tone that Haynes was trying to convey - some of the Dylans were seated firmly in the gritty realism camp, and others were in a more ethereal, otherworldly, totally fictionalized kind of place - and I don’t think that the editing helped all that much, even though Rabinowitz is a talented and accomplished editor. He’s worked extensively with indie stalwarts Darren Aronofsky and Jim Jarmusch, and his work on Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is some of the best film editing I’ve ever seen. There may have been too many threads to try to fit together here. The film is coherent, but its sense of chronology is muddled; and the editing overall comes off as affected, rather than effective. there anyone out there who saw this film and doesn’t count him- or herself a Dylan geek? I’m interested to know how this film worked (or didn’t work) on objective viewers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Mike Tyson Women's Studies Institute

Okay, let me see if I understand, let’s not start like that. One can’t attempt to see if one understands something if the thing in question is beyond all bounds of reasonable comprehension. Let me see if I’ve got this right...or correct, at any rate. Let me see if I’ve got these facts straight.

The University of Wyoming just opened an international center that they named after former Führer Dick Cheney? An international center? A place where people will go to learn how to work and play well with people in other countries, right? That’s what this place is. And they named it after Dick Cheney, so complete a disaster of a human being and politician that his own disaster of a party doesn’t even want much to do with him anymore - and he gets an international center named after him.

Surprise...some folks are less than thrilled with the idea.

That’s like naming an institute of humility for Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Seinfeld. A nutrition council for Ray Kroc. An anti-exploitation task force for Ty Pennington. A linguistics center for George Bush. It would make more sense to start a songwriting blog and name it after anyone in Collective Soul. Anybody want to get together and open a restaurant called Lecter’s? How about the Robert Montgomery Knight Finishing School for Young Gentlemen? Or, let’s get back to international centers. Can the next one be named for Lou Dobbs? What about the Sarah Palin Political Relevance Temple? (Actually, it would be more on the scale of a bungalow than a temple, and if a realtor were trying to move it, they would write it up as “cozy," with, ahem..."nice curb appeal.") Is anyone in Laramie currently thinking of starting a campaign to change Ann Coulter’s name to Glinda?

The Cheneys donated a little over three million dollars to the university, and no college is going to turn down a donation like that - hell, you could shave a few zeros off of that and still have a lot of trustees willing to traffic in boat people if it means getting your check; but there has to be some cognitive dissonance going on behind closed doors out there in the great wide open...right? do you top that? Seriously. Name José Canseco the new drug czar? Why don’t we start a new band called Original Software Ideas and get Bill Gates to sing lead?

You can be so cosmically awful at your job that you get your name on a place that concentrates on the thing you were worst at. I can almost hear the space-time continuum tearing open. Anything is possible now. I fully expect to hear on the news that James Brady met Ted Nugent at a Fuddrucker’s and shook his hand. Ralph Nader is going to go to the store for a gallon of milk and a pound of olive loaf, and he’s not going to wear his seat belt. The entire NFL season will go by without a New England Patriot faking an injury to get a legal Chris Webber timeout. The Indiana Hoosiers football team will be buying tickets to Pasadena. Geddy Lee’s gonna cut his hair. The Colts will blitz. Steve Jobs will put on a suit. If Kurt Cobain were still alive, he’d learn how to sing. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will say something that makes sense. Oh, the humanity.

The only thing more tasteless and retarded for the University of Wyoming to have done would have been to have the ribbon-cutting ceremony today, at 8:46am, with some douche from the university wearing an FDNY cap.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

O' Horten

I’ll tell you, at the rate I’m going with catching up on the movies we’ve played that I haven’t seen, I could almost start to develop an animosity toward English-language films. Looking down that list of films I’ve watched recently, there’s a lot of disappointing stuff in American - and a lot of really good stuff in languages other than American. (And yes, I know that American isn’t a langauge. I’m making fun of the jackoffs who think that there’s something wrong with you if your skin ain’t white and you don’t talk American.) The two best movies in that long list are both in English (Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker) - but the remainder of the top five would be foreign language films, and I have a feeling that most of the top ten would be filled out by films that ain’t in American.

O’Horten would be one of those, even if it does slip into standard convention at the very end, and even if its first little vignette is stronger than all of the rest that follow. It’s a Norwegian picture by Bent Hamer about a man called Odd Horten who has just retired as a locomotive engineer after forty years of service. He is fêted by his colleagues, but gets locked out of the building where the party is going to be and then climbs some scaffolding to try to get into the building. Instead, he winds up in some other family’s apartment and wakes their little boy, who wants to show Horten his car and then insists that Horten sit in a chair next to his bunk bed until he falls asleep. Of course, Horten falls asleep too, and then sneaks out of the house the next morning while the family is having breakfast. It’s an absurd little vignette, but it’s awfully funny, and even a little bit touching, trading on a classical innocence that doesn’t quite become naïvete.

The rest of the film is a rolling series of similar vignettes, ticked off in episodic fashion, though none of them are either as absurd or as funny as that first one. Horten pays a visit to his extremely elderly, nearly catatonic mother (who was once a ski jumper) and gives her some grapes, but she never speaks. There’s a story there, of course, but it’s not revealed until the end of the picture, and it is to Hamer’s credit (he also wrote the script) that he does not overdo it. The import of the story is poignant, and we get that - but he doesn’t rub our noses in it and make us wish that he had left it out. Later, Horten takes a sauna and falls asleep (again) and then goes skinny dipping when he wakes up, only to be interrupted by a couple with designs on a bit more than skinny dipping when they jump into the pool naked. Like in the scene when he stays overnight at the boy’s apartment, he manages to escape the pool unbeknownst to the others in attendance.

You could certainly argue that it is at least unlikely, and maybe even impossible, that he could make such an escape once - never mind more than once. You would probably be right, on a certain level; but that would be leaving out what Hamer might be trying to say about Horten and his place in the world, and what some of his really excellent compositions are trying to show. In a number of scenes (the sauna, and twice at a local pub), Horten is shown to be sitting off to the side, away from others. In the pub, he’s sitting in a seat tucked behind the front door. If you look at the door from inside the pub, you see Horten sitting immediately to the right of the door; but if you were to come into the pub and look around, you would miss him altogether. He is similarly situated in the sauna, all the way in the top corner, placed in such a way that he cannot physically be further removed from any other person in the room. The compositions make it clear that Horten, whether consciously or unconsciously, has distanced himself from everyone else. It’s a fish out of water story, but with a paucity of overt emotional intrigue and none of the self-importance of, say, a film like Forrest Gump.

It has some things in common with the 1994 Best Picture “winner,” but although Horten meets a lot of people under unlikely circumstances he’s not a walking tour of American (nor even of Norwegian) history - he’s just doing things he would not ordinarily have done due to having to be at work every day; and while the film certainly requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, it has a ring of authenticity to it that makes you feel like you’re having a yarn spun at you by someone who is awfully good at spinning yarns - and it doesn’t hurt that Baard Owe, as Horten, delivers such an understated, efficient performance. I thought bits of it were a little slow in the middle, but it works so well overall that I can’t really gripe about the middle bits.

Holds for one more week, on a limited schedule - so get out and see this one while you still can.

Deep Thoughts #7

Are there really people who think that “public option” equals “socialized medicine?” Are they eligible for refunds on their college tuition?

Monday, September 07, 2009


I feel bad just tossing out a scathing review of this film, mostly because of how sincere Francis Ford Coppola comes across when you read practically anything he has said or written about making this film - which he counts among the most enjoyable experiences he has had making a movie over the entirety of his career; and yet I can’t help thinking, “Man, if you had followed The Conversation with this picture (Tetro), you might not be working today. Or else you’d be lighting scenes for Martin Scorsese, something along those lines.”

It’s not that Tetro is a bad movie; there are elements of technical filmmaking in the picture that are actually quite good, and I’m sure that the many, many allusions and homages make the film considerably richer for serious students of film (the only one that I picked up was to Charles Foster Kane, and I haven’t even seen that movie) - but what the film has to recommend it in terms of style and technical merit doesn’t really outweigh the weaknesses in the story and the acting that detract most from the film. As the director, Coppola is partly to blame, too, because the film just goes on way too long; there should be a rule that a director is limited to a certain amount of running time, if that director is planning to cast Vincent Gallo in a role containing anything other than incidental speaking parts.

Gallo is Tetro, a going-on-middle-aged guy who is estranged, it would seem, from all of humanity - but particularly from anyone to whom he is directly related. He lives in present day Buenos Aires with his live-in lover, and he’s something of a hapless gadabout, if you can get your head around a Bizarro, negative version of the traditional gadabout. He occasionally runs the lights at the local playhouse, but most of the time he just hangs around and looks angry and defeated and grizzled. His back story starts to come out when his brother Bennie turns up on his doorstep one day, and the rest of the film is basically two parts - the brothers catching up on their ten year estrangement, and then some natural progression of their relationship now that their lives have intersected once again.

Coppola describes the things that take place in the film in this way (the quote may not be verbatim, but the gist is there): “Nothing in the film actually happened, but it’s all true.” The domineering father in the film doesn’t quite match up to what is known about Coppola’s own father, but there are similarities; and you can pretty easily see Talia Shire in Miranda (Tetro’s lover)'s eyes; but though there are shades of autobiography in the story, the film clearly plays like Coppola is trying to make a grand movie from the old studio days, an über-melodramatic chronicle of what might have happened in his own life if things had not gone so well for him. It might even be the kind of melodrama that could have worked under other circumstances, one of which would be if Coppola had not chosen to stack even more melodrama at the end on top of the already shaky melodrama on which the story is built. Unfortunately, the story does, in fact, go in that direction, and it largely falls apart by the end; but that’s not the biggest problem with the movie.

That would be Gallo. I haven’t seen him in anything else. He might actually be a genius, I don’t know. Based on Tetro, however, I would seriously doubt it. He does angry and brooding awfully well; but like George Gervin and the finger roll, that would appear to be all that he can do. Well, no wait...he can smoke cigarettes, too. I don’t think he smokes quite as many as John Mellencamp does in real life, or as many as Billy Bob Thornton did in The Man Who Wasn’t There - but it’s a lot. Beyond that, though, Tetro the character is pretty much the same at the end of picture as he was at the beginning. There’s a reveal, and an obligatory reconciliation sequence; but the reveal is unnecessary, and because the reconciliation is dependent upon the reveal, that also feels out of place and ineffectual. Tetro - both the character and the film - fail to develop sufficiently to the point that the ending is believable. Tetro the character is the key to Tetro the film, but he lacks the essential humanity that would allow the audience to invest any kind of emotion or interest in the character. I just didn’t find Tetro authentic as a person, and when the character can’t connect with the audience in any meaningful kind of way, it’s awfully hard for the story to gain any traction.

Stylistically, though, the film is sort of nice to look at. Coppola shot in digital, and parts of that were in high definition. You can pick up some of that high definition, even in a 35mm print projected non-digitally, largely because of how well lit and shot the film is. There is so much contrast in so many of the black and white shots that some of the scenes and images approach the point of chiaroscuro. On the other hand, color flashback sequences, shot on grainy home-video stock, are a little bit distracting - and they do a disservice to Tetro the character by letting us see into his memory rather than forcing him to talk about those memories and thereby reveal his deeply barricaded humanity.

I was talking to Heather at work the other day, about the novels of Chuck Palahniuk and what might be the reason that I don’t get how those novels have achieved the level of cult appeal that they have achieved. Heather’s opinion was that I am too old, and that may well be true. I get that they’re funny, and I laugh at the jokes; but the translation to film is awkward (especially for something like Choke), and for all of Palahniuk’s considerable skill at breathing perverse life into a cast of characters, his ability to tell a story with those characters is not nearly so polished. The reason that I didn’t fully appreciate Tetro, in the spirit in which it was intended to be appreciated, might run to the opposite extreme - I might be too young. It’s certainly true that I could have done a much better job of studying film to this point in my life than I have done (the last two months of writing about the movies I have watched - 34 films in July and August - notwithstanding); but it is not possible for me to have been able to study the films and filmmakers Coppola references here when those films were current - and at the end of the day, I get the feeling that Coppola, who says he wishes he could have been making this kind of movie all along, has made this film less for the modern audience in toto than for his own contemporaries specifically.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Every now and then, I find myself thinking that I was born at the wrong time, and I usually find myself thinking this when I read about the 1960s or see a movie that gets into the hippie excesses of the 1960s - especially the latter half of the decade, after we put troops on the ground in Vietnam and had the Summer of Love. Taking Woodstock, obviously, is such a picture. It’s also an Ang Lee picture, so I had a bit of trepidation going in, as I’ve begun to notice that most of the Ang Lee pictures I have seen start out so slowly as to be ponderous - even the otherwise brilliant Brokeback Mountain - and only manage to ramp up to a sort of geriatric crawl, even during the most important scenes.

Adapted from the memoirs of Elliot Tiber - apparently Ang Lee is also averse to working with original screenplays - this is the story of how the Woodstock concert came to be, more so than it is about the actual concert and the music that was played and the musicians who were there (and who were not there). It’s forty years now since the concert, and there is certainly no shortage of commemorative music to be found to celebrate the anniversary; this is the other side of the story - everything that was going on at Woodstock besides the concert: hundreds of thousands of kids getting high, getting laid, getting muddy, and camping out on a section of rural New York highway that the state police had to close due to the congestion created by people arriving for the festival. It’s the story of how a group of people co-opted the fields of a local dairy farmer called Max Yasgur and basically cut off a small section of rural New York from the rest of the world so that they could hold a festival that they had no idea would turn into the monstrous event that actually took place during those three days of peace and music.

Tiber’s parents were running a roadside motel in the summer of 1969 when Elliot read in the newspaper about the banning of a music festival to be put on by Woodstock Ventures in the nearby town of Wallkill, New York; Elliot was at an awkward time in his life, having just moved back in with his parents - after living in Manhattan for a number of years - in order to help them get the mortgage on the motel out of arrears; and the time, of course, was ripe for the bright young Elliot to do something big with his life. The time also seems ripe to begin railing against the melodramatic use of the standard coming-of-age story by an overly sentimental director. Happily, though, we don’t have to do that. We can still rail against Ang Lee for starting his movies slowly (although this may have more to do with his being Taiwanese than with his being an overrated director - apparently it’s standard operating procedure for films from Taiwan to open slowly), but he manages mostly to avoid the melodrama. In fact, he makes a pointed decision to move away from the very intense drama he’s worked with in recent films (Lust, Caution and Brokeback Mountain) and toward an actual comedy. I’m not sure, however, that he quite gets there. There are funny moments, but there are at least as many awkward moments that feel like they were supposed to be funny as there are genuinely funny moments - almost as though Lee isn’t really sure how to direct comedy and like his actors aren’t really sure what to do when he tries.

The choice to the show the things going on behind the scenes, rather than the concert itself, is an interesting one - and one that works, I think - because Woodstock, at least in the popular culture, has always been at least as much about the spectacle of the gathering as it has been about the music - some of which was postponed or cancelled due to rain, and some acts didn’t end up going on stage until the very wee hours of the morning, when most of the festival-goers were asleep (or passed out). Before I saw the trailer for this film, I don’t know that it had ever really occurred to me that Woodstock, at some point anyway, had to have gone through a stage when it was just in the planning, when there were still logistics of permits and financing and security and accommodations to figure out; and I had not known that the venue had changed so close to the date of the festival, to the point that actually putting together an event in Bethel, New York, wasn’t so much about getting everything right as it was getting the absolute essentials - namely, a stage - ready to go so that the tens of thousands of expected attendees (there were around 100,000 tickets already sold at the time of the venue change) would have something to see when they got there.

The climax of the film comes when Elliot finally goes to Max’s fields to see the concert, which has been his goal all along - but which is hard to do when you’re in charge of so many things back at the base camp. There is some discrepancy in the historical record regarding who called whom at the outset of changing the venue from Wallkill to Bethel and regarding how well Elliot knew Max Yasgur (if at all, though they seem quite chummy in the film); but the film is not a documentary (that film has already been made), and it’s not a concert film (I don’t know if that one got made or not) - it’s a fictionalized account of Elliot’s involvement with the biggest concert of all time, and the point is doing the thing itself. In this case, it means putting on the festival - which is a microcosmic rebellion that also works as an allegory to the macrocosmic rebellion that took place generally in the 1960s.

Elliot never makes it to the concert. Instead, he spends the night in a van with two hippies from California (I may be wrong on the state they came from, but it doesn’t matter), played by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner. Elliot drops acid for the first time and experiences a mind-bending change in his perceptions that is also - like so much else in this film - indicative of the larger themes of the 1960s; but there’s something else going on here, something that goes back to Elliot’s unwillingness to let his parents go when they get behind on their mortgage - even though it is suggested to him by his sister that he do so. It’s never explicitly stated - and since it’s the sixties, it’s sometimes hard to tell where the lines are drawn anyway - but Elliot is gay, and it’s clear by his mannerisms and his demeanor that he feels trapped by his life, both literally and figuratively. His first acid trip allows him to get to a place where he can be okay leaving mom and dad behind and setting out on his own.

Dropping a tab of Pluto is no longer the socially accepted method for getting right with one’s personal demons, of course. A generation ago, though, drugs were very much a way of dealing with pressure - a pressure that was generated largely by the Great American Patriot in the aftermath of the second World War and the attendant post-war prosperity in America. The lovely decade of the 1950s, the first with television, so that all Americans could, for the first time, see exactly the image of American life that a handful of power brokers wanted them to see and thought was the proper kind, cemented into the popular consciousness the fake idea of “traditional marriage” and the patently misogynistic idea of the male breadwinner household. Though both ideas are obviously incorrect and outmoded, they have lived on thanks to conservative people who are afraid of change. These are the ones in the diner at the beginning of the film, after it breaks in the local paper that the festival that was killed by Wallkill is now coming to Bethel - the ones who say they are going to boycott Yasgur’s milk and that all the Jews ought to leave town. This is narrow-minded conservative thinking, but all conservative thinking really is, at the bottom, is fear - fear of change and of the unknown. When people are finally smart enough to face their fears and stop thinking conservatively, then we can finally really talk about the land of the free and the home of the brave.

That’s a lot of pressure to let off, and it should not really have come as a surprise that something like “The Sixties” had to happen in order for that pressure to equalize. So much misguided thinking had to come to a head at some point. The children of the fifties became the young adults of the sixties, and they realized that most of what their parents had taught them was either wrong or dangerous or both. Those young adults didn’t always know what they were doing, and they didn’t get everything right; but the heart of their argument - which culminated with Woodstock - was absolutely correct. They knew that something was wrong, and they knew that they had to get out. Those themes are all still relevant forty years later, and the need to break away from conservative thinking is greater than ever. Taking Woodstock does a really good job of showing us how much was really going on in that tiny little New York town, of showing us how important it is to be truly free - and of reminding us how far we still have to go to get there.

The Full Quote

Blogger apparently only lets you have 500 characters with which to express yourself in the space below the title of your blog in the header. The quote I tried to put up there just now was closer to 600 characters, and I got a snooty little error message when I tried to save it. The full quote looks like this:

"[Paolo] Sorrentino seems to be essentially conceding that the days when there was a commercially viable audience for a cinema of civic conscience...are long gone, and that, in a new, highly competitive media and entertainment environment, today's primarily younger moviegoers will have to be enticed to see films dealing with their own political history or contemporary affairs by packaging them in a more compelling, tricked-out visual style, complemented by a generous helping of popular music." -Gary Crowdus, introduction to an interview with Paolo Sorrentino (Cineaste, vol. XXXIV, No.3)

Crowdus is the editor-in-chief of Cineaste magazine, a quarterly that deals with the politics involved in cinema nearly as much as it deals with cinema itself. I've lately discovered the joy of reading Film Comment, but that one only comes out every other month, so after I finished the latest issue, I started looking for other serious indie film magazines, and found Cineaste. Unfortunately, there is no link on their website to the interview with Sorrentino - and it looks like a new issue is out, so you might be out of luck at the newsstand, too. Maybe you can get a back issue! The issue with the Sorrentino interview also has two really good articles on the state of Palestinian cinema.