Monday, December 3, 2012


(Evan Glodell, USA, 2011)

When Bellflower dropped back in 2011, it elicited both enthusiastic praise and rather harsh condemnation, with neither reaction coming from the quarters you might expect.  Richard Brody was all mushy over the film, while Glenn Kenny was appalled.  Kenny (and a few others) felt that the film was guilty of misogyny, and that its representation of male-female relationships was fraught with double standards.  Brody and company pushed back, defending the film as a perfectly acceptable and honest treatment of heartbreak and despair.

After seeing the film myself, I find myself coming down mostly in favor of the film; at the very least, I don't think that it's guilty of woman-hating. The male characters are immature and mostly bewildered by women, but they don't exhibit anything like a concerted hatred for the opposite sex.  The movie itself plays deliberately with the notion of reality and fantasy being willfully, and then not so willfully, entwined.  This allows for the climatic violence to be somewhat blunted in terms of its effects, but as a close female connection related to me, the particulars of the violence do seem to be female-specific in an especially unsettling way.  The best I can do is to call this all very unsettling, which, political correctness aside, is part-and-parcel with the kind of apocalyptic shadings that the film trades in.  Glodell, who in addition to co-writing and directing also plays Woodrow, is by most appearances a class-A dork, but he's also something of a self-styled macho man.   Lovelorn anguish is the engine that drives the film, but it's the historical framing that gives it any relevance.  Rather than just another story of male arrested development and heartbreak, it rather brilliantly incorporates various postindustrial anxieties.

All of that aside, it could be a much better film.  The only reason the characters are remotely watchable is that their obnoxiousness and cluelessness is so exaggerated that you kind of stop noticing.  This could be a clever gambit on the part of Glodell, because when things begin to get really weird, and you realize that the reality/fantasy line is being fudged, the utter outlandishness of some of the characters' behavior doesn't register as all that outlandish.  For these kind of unforced felicities, you can't help but admire the filmmakers.  On many levels, Bellflower is preposterous.  Glodell falls right into just about every pitfall involved in the fantasy/reality-blender film, but he does so with such gusto and apparent earnestness that it winds up being weirdly forgivable.  And yes, the flamethrower/car/gadgetry is pretty cool, if for no other reason than it represents a kind of dark perversion of the creative energy exhibited by these protagonists, an eerie premonition of the kind of harsh world that is an ever-increasing threat.

Holy Motors

(Leos Carax, France/Germany, 2012)

M. Carax, it has been too long.  After the operatic but turbid Pola X, which approached a cinematic self-immolation and served as a kind of fuck-off to his career as filmmaker, Leos Carax has made only a few paltry shorts since 1999, the longest of which came packaged with the 2008 omnibus Tokyo!  Finally, after a long stint in the wilderness (when asked what he's been doing all that time, he usually offers some Gallic, stoic rumination on trying and failing to get films made, living life, reading, traveling, etc.) he is back at large, and the  firmament of cinema is suddenly brighter.  Holy Motors is best described as a trip - fast, funny, moving, formally audacious and not without moments of dizziness, the omnipresent risk of a catastrophic crash.   It's subject is cinema itself, but we have to keep in mind that this is Carax we're talking about, who is more than any other filmmaker heir to the Godardian lemma of Cinema=Life=Cinema.  Following that equation in one direction, it can be seen that Carax views cinema as a kind of skeleton key to life; a tool, almost holy in its powers, for examining and expressing all that life has (and doesn't have) to offer.  Looking through the other end of the camera, we see Life captured and fixed on film (or, in this case, stored as data on a hard drive), subject to the limits of the machine, imprisoned in the glass eye of the lens.  Carax's film astounds with its ambition; his frequently goofy, occasionally sublime, and usually caustic deployment of humor obscures this somewhat, but it needs to be stated he is interested in nothing less than the Alpha and Omega of modern life, in all of its opacity and ambiguity.  Which is not to say that he manages to squeeze all that stuff in there, although not for lack of trying.  In it's darker moments, there is a sense of desperation, a liminal madness that hints at some lingering despair, even as he exults in the joy of the artform.

But one never gets the sense that Carax, for all of his risk-taking, is not in complete control of his craft.  It's perhaps surprising that after being out of the game for so long, his instincts as a filmmaker are as sharp as ever; all I can say is, I'm glad he's been taking his vitamins.  Holy Motors is a mature work by a seasoned director.  He is no longer the incandescent upstart, but it is a relief and a joy that he has lost none of his edge, even as he has moved beyond the novelty of youth.   It's funny; there are even moments when Carax actually seems to be showing off.  Just when you think he's gone and thrown it out the window for a dose of gleeful irreverence (and often, there is a slight unwillingness on Carax's part to sit with the more sincere and self-serious moments; he has a tendency to undercut his more tender moments with little exclamations of slapstick or absurd humor) he comes back and drops some wonderfully moving dramatic gravitas on you.  He seems to be saying:  yes, I can show off with the camera as well as anybody, but I can also tug your heartstrings as hard as any Hollywood melodrama.   It would be churlish, I think, to begrudge Carax any of this, mostly because he's so fucking good; besides, there's nothing extraneous about any of these scenes.  They are part of the fabric of the film, seen as brief asides, over too quickly, beautiful and resonant but quickly fading, like a high string on a harp.

There's an argument that Carax plays a bit too fast and loose with his premises, that he doesn't quite earn the narrative and formal liberties he takes, but I don't buy it.  Holy Motors is as deeply felt and ingeniously conceived as anything Carax has ever made, and a strong contender for that coveted mantle of A Great Film.  It's true that Carax seems to steal a bit more than he earns; rather than be limited by the episodic structure he's chosen, he makes it work in his favor, tightening the action and shifting to the next scene before anything - an idea, a character, an image - overstays its welcome.  This velocity, if that's what it is, has long been a crucial weapon in Carax's arsenal.  If it makes things buzz by a little too quickly, it also contributes to a sense of exhaustion, a world-weariness that lies at the heart of the movie.  For all of its joys and exaltations of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema, it never fully transcends the sense of loss that seeps into the corners of the film.  But, if I read the film right, Carax is far from finished.  Here's hoping the next trip comes soon.