Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Frances Ha

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2013)

Seen by some as an elder statesman's correction to Mumblecore, Baumbach and Gerwig's movie is very much it's own beast.  Equal parts classical cinema and Nouvelle Vague, it paints a layer of freewheeling abandon over a sturdy, if squat, substructure of character study.

Working from a script they co-wrote, Gerwig and Baumbach take their formal cues from stumbling, gregarious, impulsive Frances, treating us to a brisk succession of (mostly) comic set pieces.  The best stuff effectively nails the heady stew of ambition, anxiety, and sentiment that exemplify the lives of New York based aspiring artists.  Careening between desire and ennui, between security and risk, gives Frances' life plenty of momentum, even if it's lacking in direction.

Gerwig, a performer of increasingly impressive dexterity and depth, has never been better.  It's easy to sense a personal proximity between the actress and the character, but I suspect that's a result of her skill.  Baumbach's presence here is marked by the absence of the spleen that's usually in abundance, leaving a lighter, more palatable expression of his wit.  There's no climactic meltdown, no truly antisocial misbehavior, from any of the characters (although there is some sloppy drunkenness.)  The film is perhaps most impressive in its elision of a plot that hinges upon the romantic stakes of the main character.  Frances is, as she and her friend often joke, "undatable."  And yet she's refreshingly unperturbed by this fact, as is the film, which finds plenty of story material not contingent upon romantic crises.

Instead, the true subject of the film is friendship.  Frances' connection to her best friend, Sophie, is shown to be tender and fragile.  Despite their intimacy, the incursions of romance, economic insecurity, and "lifestyle" seem everywhere to loom, threatening what both obviously cling to as a sense of stability and grounding in a fast-moving, uncertain world. 

Overall, the film's deliberate lightness can at times feel a bit thin.  Gerwig's character remains more on the side of sketch than of a portrait, and there is a tendency to rely on comedic shorthand, rather than careful evocation, to depict her.  While the breeziness is refreshing, especially to those of us familiar with Baumbach's usual stuff, there remains a strong undercurrent of sadness.   Neither of the filmmakers seem to quite know what to do with this, and it leaves the character of Frances in a kind of formal limbo.  She's treated as a hero, albeit a bit of a klutz.  But there are unexplored dimensions to her carelessness, both in it's reckless passion and in it's more childish fleeing from responsibility.  It's a minor bug for a very pleasing movie.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


(Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)

In a recent interview, Alexander Payne referred to his first six movies - including this one - as "études."  That's classic Payne - humble, even self-deprecating, but with a whiff of sophistication, and the subtle implication of rather large ambitions.  Payne might be my favorite misfit director, although I'm not sure who else I'd include in such a group.  His body of work is one of the most consistently satisfying in contemporary American cinema, but there's a sense, in the man and in the films, of a certain dissatisfaction.  Certainly, the stories he tells deal explicitly with disappointment.  His heroes are sadsacks and losers.  Their few triumphs are pathetically minor and are often bleakly overshadowed by their failures.  But on an aesthetic level, Payne the cineaste exudes confidence, intelligence, wit, and feeling.  He's managed to sustain a career in the unforgiving climes of Hollywood, where you're only as good as your last movie, and "independent" has become a largely meaningless term.  By any sane measure, then, considering what he's up against, Payne's story has been one of resounding success.  He's one of a virtual handful of directors who gets to make his movies, his way, for decently sized budgets (in the low-to-mid ten millions).

So why the remark about études?  Why is he so quick to characterize his life's work (so far) to a string minor exercises, given the relative creative freedom and success that he's been afforded?  What, to him, would qualify as a symphony?  As a fan of the director, these questions strike me as urgent.  While I applaud his apparent ambition, I'm troubled by his willingness to minimize the accomplishments he's made so far.  Election, besides being hilarious, was a magnificently sharp satire of the American tendency to substitute pageantry for politics, illuminating beautifully (and brutally) the way in which public life is driven, and distorted, by private desires.  The same could be said about Citizen RuthAbout Schmidt was remarkably clear-sighted about aging and regret, just as Sideways was about friendship, disappointment, and sex.  It was only with The Descendants that Payne seemed to actually earn his aw shucks attitude towards his own work.  While still a smart, carefully crafted film, it seemed toothless and tame - not deep enough to rise above passable drama, and not sharp enough to match his former satiric edge.  And still, I had to give it to him - the performances were great, and he was able to pull heartstrings with the best of them.

All the same, when it comes down to it, I can't entirely disagree.  They're not great movies, in the capital G sense.  There is an element to his approach that is undeniably admirable, in the sense of the cineaste as smuggler - how much intelligence and nuance can somebody squeeze into a movie that still has to play well in major markets?  And yet this is precisely the wrong way to look at it.  And I wonder if Payne's attitude - his willingness to equate scale with significance -  is to blame for the works' shortcomings.  Even at his best, there is a sense of Payne playing it safe - of deliberately applying the brakes, dampening the more mercurial, dark, and dangerous aspects of himself for the sake of safety, or worse, propriety.  It's not as if Payne's work doesn't suggest greater things.  I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he were to one day release a magnum opus of social commentary - no other director is as acutely aware of the way most Americans live and behave as Payne.  His realism, while tinged with a certain theatricality, is often brilliantly lucid.

Nebraska allows Payne to depict, in a manner that is both direct and diffuse, his homeland.  He's set his movies in the Midwest before, but here he shows the landscapes in all of their glory, lovingly capturing the way that the even light plays upon people, trees, streets, and houses.  But he's also interested in the ugliness: strip malls, roach motels, the indifferent and inhuman edifice of industry, the chilling monotony of a land gridded with highways.  And more than ever, what we notice is absence - of memory, of community, of comfort, of purpose, and even of hope.  Payne's Nebraska, like his Billings, Montana, is a place of ruined dreams.

Part of this is appropriate for the story.  Beneath the comic bumbling of Bruce Dern's Woody, who ambles through his life in a cloud of half-coherence, is a man who is stunned by how little he has amounted to.  He affects indifference, hiding behind his age and the apparent indifference of others, but secretly, as we find, he does have an inner life, and it's choked with anger and sadness.  He hasn't been totally drained of yearning.  His quixotic quest for the bogus winnings is about more than a truck and an air compressor - he sees what might be his very last chance at a legacy, at something to leave his sons after he's gone.  Much of the movie's plot is concerned with an excavation of Woody's past, as seen through the eyes of those people who have been peripheral to him, up to and including his own sons, for whom he never had much in the way of affection or responsibility.  Unconsciously, Woody has found himself drawn into his own history, and what was supposed to be a last ditch attempt to alter the future turns into a walk backwards in time, much to his chagrin.

Dern throws himself into the role, and the results are wonderful.  His flowing nimbus of hair, his wet, wide, pleading eyes, his glowering voice, and the burdened, unsteady gait - it's a brilliant performance.   But it's done a disservice by Payne's unwillingness, or inability, to locate the heart of Woody's pathos, and by extension, the pathos of the world that he so sharply photographs.  There is mention of Woody's benevolence as a younger man, and the toll taken by his experience in the Korean War.  But this remains frustratingly tangential, a sideline to the more blatant tendencies in Payne's stylistic playbook: insistent musical cues, casual close-ups, the feeling of staginess in many of his scenes.

Although the entire premise of the movie rests upon the illusion of sudden wealth, it's in the issue of money that the film seems most deficient.  It's not that economics is the hidden, missing subject matter of the film.  But money represents the context in which the cultures being depicted have been formed.  Payne is too quick to paint his characters as stooges.

I have never held with those who've accused Payne of condescension to his characters.  But now I'm beginning to wonder if the affection he professes for them isn't tinged with just that quality.  To condescend implies a mistaken sense of knowing; we condescend to children because we've forgotten what it's like to be a child.  For all of his closeness to Nebraska, I came away doubting that Payne really understood these people.  Sure, he might like, them, might even admire them for their cordiality, their simplicity, their good humor and fortitude in the face of seemingly difficult conditions.  But does he really understand them?  Does he know where they came from, what they lost along the way?  After all, these are people in a kind of poverty.  Some of them get by all right, but the bigger deficit in their lives is spiritual.  Does Payne understand that?  Or does he simply shrug it off, like so many modern would-be artists, as an unavoidable fact of life?

What I'm asking for is a sense of history.  This isn't entirely missing from Nebraska, which is what makes it all the more frustrating as a film.  It's there, in the reference to Korea, in the reference to older generations.  But it's relegated to the background; it never grows in resonance.  Too many of the characters are presented as rubes.  I'm grateful that we have a filmmaker who is so willing to go out into flyover country and tell stories about people, using some of those actual people, who live in the great forgotten middle of this country, a land of unimaginable fecundity that has been so terribly worn down by two solid centuries of abuse.  But just showing up isn't enough.  There is much more to tell, and Payne has only begun to scratch the surface. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fight Club

(David Fincher, USA, 1999)

Watching again for the first time in years, I was struck by how much Fight Club remains a strange, hostile, grimy, pitch-black comedy.  Certainly, it doesn't seem as clever as it did when I initially viewed it (I was in high school.)  But it's still one of the smartest, zaniest films to be released by a major studio in the 90s.  Of course, it's eerily fitting that the film was released on the eve of the new millennium.  Fincher's grungy opus can even be viewed as a kind of warped eschatology of late-capitalist decadence and despair.  Preceding as it did 9/11, the silicon valley bubble, the Great Recession, and Occupy Wall Street, the film now appears both formidably prophetic and rather quaint.

Here's an amusing anecdote - my first viewing of Fight Club, when I was a freshman, was on a date.  The girl I took to see it was a senior, and while she wasn't exactly my "type," and in some ways it wasn't really much of a date (there were other friends of hers along) there was still a palpable sexual tension that didn't subside until after we left the theater.  This was exacerbated during the film by her periodically kicking my leg as an attempt, I suppose, to shake me from my rapturous immersion and incite a make-out session.  It didn't take.  As was painfully, awkwardly clear by the time the credits rolled, she was into me WAY more than I was into her.  Her advances not so much spurned as ignored, she subjected me to considerable bitterness over the next few weeks.  Being as I was young, dumb, and painfully anxious around girls, this was something of a blow.  But it ought to speak well of the film that I nonetheless enjoyed the hell out of the theatrical experience, and became a confirmed fan of Fincher on the spot.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight and age, I can see how incredibly apt Fight Club was as a failed date-movie.  The story's central catalyst, of course, is a woman, and the narcissistic tailspin that results from Jack's inability to ask her out on a date.  Of course, we can only go so far down this road.  It would be silly to claim that Fight Club is a feminist, or even crypto-feminist, film.  While it leaves no part of the fragile male psyche unbruised, and sets up Marla as the only responsible adult in the story, her character remains firmly secondary.  She also spends much of the time in a blue cloud of self-hatred, in which we see her attempt suicide, be saved only to become a ragged sex doll, and generally get pushed around by every male she encounters.  And it's not as if Jack would be all better if only he were to get (consciously) laid, or to open his heart to the charms of a woman.  It's clear that the crisis is deeper, even existential.  But the solution remains elusive, although there are a few intriguing hints put forth by the film.

While Fight Club flirts with some fairly Marxist ideas, it doesn't follow them very far.  It's particularly resonant in light of the 2008 economic collapse, given how many of the "members" are underemployed workers.  Even the relatively better off specimens, such as Jack/Narrator, don't have any deep commitment to their work. Part of what is occurring at Fight Club is a generation of young men with an enormous surplus of energy, specifically creative energy.  The film, in probably its most Freudian observation, views this as dangerous.  Give people a creative outlet, it seems to say, or they will easily be turned to the forces of destruction.

The film's plot clearly hinges upon the emergence of Tyler, and of the evolution of Fight Club from a pseudo self-help organization to the Fascist "project mayhem."  But it could have gone another way, setting aside the emphasis on violence.  This unexplored option, in the film and the book, would have been an examination of the results of Jack's addiction to mutual help groups.  What if he had never created Tyler?  What if instead he had stuck with the groups, began a relationship with Marla, in which both of them claimed to be dying, even though they weren't?  A pitch black romantic comedy that I would love to see.

Fight Club is a deliberately confrontational film.  In one of the many meta-textual embellishments, the film itself basically sets out to start a fight with the audience, or more specifically, with the portion of the audience that isn't in on the joke.  It's like the scene where the members of Fight Club are given the "homework assignment" to go out and start a fight with a stranger, and then to lose the fight.  What begins as the ultimate act of repulsion becomes a sales pitch, a come-on.   There is something aggressively sophomoric about this.  It even flirts with being antisocial, but it never completely embraces the amorality of some of the characters.  Jack, for all of his nebbishness, remains a fundamentally decent guy.  When he realizes what he has wrought, he doesn't waste a second before trying to set things straight.  This might seem like a cop-out on the part of Fincher.  For all of the grit and grime and nastiness, there seems always to be some hedging.  After all, it is satire, a form that provides a built-in safety hatch if things get too serious.  The filmmakers can always step back and cry "but didn't you see how we deliberately undercut the darkest and most troubling suggestions put forth in the story?"

For my part, I don't think the film is guilty of any double-dealing.  As satire, it works quite well, but revolutionary agitprop it isn't.  This is unsurprising - after all, the movie was bankrolled by 20th Century Fox.  For all of the jabs at Starbucks and Ikea, it never winds up endorsing the anomie of Tyler and his cohorts.  Even the ending, with its majestic destruction of the credit card industries headquarters, is leavened by Jack's redemption: he's destroyed the specter of Tyler, and has finally found a way to connect with his feminine side.  But there's another level on which Fight Club remains steadfastedly radical: Fincher's depiction of the slimy, sweaty, bloody underbelly of the modern world.

On this level at least, the film remains a potent affront to good taste.  You'd be hard-pressed to find another mainstream film containing so much blood and mucus, or that took such perverse delight in its fuck-you sensibility.  Fight Club asks us to laugh along with it as it gleefully rubs our face in some of the ugliest tendencies of human nature.  And what's so damn exceptional about the film is that it succeeds so well in this regard.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Goodbye South, Goodbye

(Hou Hsaio Hsien, Taiwan, 1997)

After a dip into the besotted beauty of Wong Kar-Wai, it was a welcome and enlightening change of pace to re-view this stubbornly odd and beautiful film, released around the same time.

Hou can be understood, simplistically but not entirely incorrectly, as the anti-Wong.  Whereas Wong can whip a scene of two characters talking in a cafe into a swoony reverie of longing and regret, Hou can turn the same situation into an occasion for subtle humor, which can then suddenly become exquisite pathos.  Whereas Wong delights in underlining the emotional core of a scene with light, music, cutting, and camera movement, Hou is a much more laconic stylist, revealing himself only by degrees, and requiring considerably astute attention from the audience.  And yet there is much in Hou's work that is directly, gorgeously sensual, just as there is plenty in Wong's stuff that is deliberately elusive.

GSG on this viewing played like a strange, ultramodern version of Buster Keaton.  Many of the major moments are undercut with absurdity and irony in ways that are too perfect not to be designed for such an effect.  Hou is unparalleled (except perhaps by Kiorostami) in making the events in his movies feel both utterly spontaneous (even random) and calibrated to an eighth of an inch.


Monday, September 2, 2013

The Grandmaster

(Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong/China, 2013)

A long-delayed but triumphant return to form.  After the woozy shambles that was My Blueberry Nights, Wong has regained his footing and reinvigorated his art.  Since 2000's In the Mood for Love made him a bonafide international art-house star, Wong has been playing in a larger and more perilous sandbox.  He's matured out of his rollicking early period into a more reflective, stately mode, but his restlessness has kept apace.  Nights can be seen as a well-intentioned misadventure.  Bereft of the nostalgia and specificity of his own past, Wong grafted his well-developed visual sensibility to a disjointed string of American cinema-literary tropes, and the results ranged from "interesting" to embarrassing.   To some, this was proof-positive of Wong being an overrated auteur, but to many, including myself, it was a forgivable misstep.  As his latest indicates, he's still got the goods.

 Although there are the expected similarities to his earlier work, such as Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster shows Wong to be undiminished in his curiosity and ambition, as he attempts to marry his intensely interior aesthetic to what is primarily a historical drama, with components of the wuxia genre.  I'm not much versed in the martial-arts tradition, but what Wong accomplishes with the fights is marvelous; gorgeous and fluid, it's both highly kinetic and coherent.  Although the speed of his cutting is on par with any recent Hollywood film, the physical movements are never obscured or confused.  Wong cleaves tightly to the historical accuracy of the story, and thus denies himself the use of pop-music cues that have previously been so integral to his art.  But he makes up for this deficit with the fights themselves, which become interludes of pure rhythm and movement, every bit as mesmerizing and emotionally charged as Maggie Cheung sashaying down a nighttime street.

The Grandmaster also marks a certain departure in the way that Wong goes about telling the story.  Unlike so many previous films, in which the narrative served as little more than a pretext, this film really moves.  It isn't entirely free of Wong's distinctively slippery way with chronology, but compared to his earlier work it can feel positively brisk.   This is easily Wong's most utilitarian film: voiceover is used to convey not just feeling but to parcel out crucial information about the plot, and intertitles are used to clarify time and place.  The happiest surprise of all of this is that these things, which can occasionally have the feel of concessions to the genre trappings, actually end up working to the film's benefit.  They wind up being a grounding force, almost gravitational, that tethers Wong's romantic fancies to the relentless grind of history.  Ip Man's story is, after all, suffused with sadness.  In the end, bereft of his family and former life, he perseveres only through his commitment to the tradition of his school of Kung Fu, believing that it must be passed down to future generations.  In this final sense, the martial art becomes one of the few remaining strands of living culture, brought through the crucible of history, altered but not broken, to connect the uncertain future to the rapidly disappearing past. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bad Education

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2004)

One of Pedro's decidedly darker and more serious efforts, Bad Education left me cold the first time I viewed it.  I was callow then, and much less receptive to the extra-saturated artifice that is Almodovar's style.  A second viewing, and a greater appreciation of the director, have occasioned a more favorable, or at least more nuanced, view.  While he refuses to relinquish his penchant for bad-boy antics, there is an undeniable restraint apparent in his later works, and if they seem more inhibited, and a bit more fussily composed, they are also more complex and heartfelt.  Watching Bad Education is to experience a bit more of how Almodovar feels about his subjects.  The thick braiding of the film's various narrative strands, while occasionally overwrought, is their very subject: the webs of deception (including self-deception) that we weave in order to protect ourselves from pain.  It's tempting to look at a film like Bad Education as nothing more than a glossy charm-box, exquisitely crafted but with little to say.  But that would be to miss the central fact of the story:  the devastating aftershocks of trauma are what drive the plot and the characters.  Everybody in the movie is on the run from the past, desperately compiling their respective identities.   If the Almodovar surrogate is predictably sauve and passionate, he's also depicted as damaged goods, vain and covetous and plenty naive.  For all of the Hitchcock references and obvious delight in the heady atmosphere of noir, Almodovar doesn't hesitate to depict, with earnestness, the ravages of abuse and their persistence through time.  And this film is undeniably modern, concentrating with a sharp eye on the deleterious effects of dislocation and dehumanization, with the artist as a kind of desperate martyr. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bling Ring

(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)

I'll admit that I'm not always sure what Sofia Coppola is up to.  Her most fully-realized film is Lost in Translation, which remains as charmed and atmospheric as it first appeared in 2006.  I saw Marie Antoinette, which didn't leave much of an impression, although I do recall it being much better than the most vocal haters claimed.  Somewhere is sitting somewhere on my Netflix queue. 

The Bling Ring gets at least one thing right: the stoned vacancy that can result from a person spending too much time out in the SoCal sun.  The kids who constitute the ring are hardly avid criminals, in what ends up being one of the bone-dry but droll meta-jokes of the movie.  It's unclear that they ever realize they're doing something wrong, but it's unmistakable that the appeal of the B and E escapades has almost nothing to do with transgressing.  For these wayward youngsters, it's about "stuff."  That actual word comes up a few times, always in reference to the splendor of the possessions they cadge from the houses of their heroes and heroines.   They feel entitled to it; they're just helping themselves to what they view as their just desserts.  It's funny, in a way, but it's also very sad.  While it seems axiomatic that the Bling Ringers don't have political or even moral awareness, it's kind of shocking to realize that they also don't seem to even have much in the way of aesthetic imaginations.  The opulence registers, but not the beauty, of their plunder.  (Yes, a great deal of it is tacky, expensive crap, but it's not like they're fooled; the name on the tag is what matters.  How it looks, or how kitschy it might be, is irrelevant.)    The late-night revelry at the club, when they writhe to house beats studded with their new loot, is merely fodder for selfies.  They aren't interested in experiences as such, only as things to document and transmit through the ubiquitous tentacles of social media.   It's all meant for the consumption of others, strangers and friends who are scrolling silently through Facebook photo albums.

Depressing as this is, its mostly in the background, as Coppola mostly manages to keep the action light and funny.  The film isn't what you'd call trenchant.  It understands that the kids aren't all right, and it makes the good judgement to assume that the audience understands this also.  An excoriating tirade, in film form, would have been unbearable.  Coppola has always chosen the removed observer approach, which has its aesthetic and moral virtues.  As dispiriting as it is to see the young characters sleepwalk through their lives, so thoroughly fleeced of their vitality that they don't even know it's gone, Coppola manages to capture something latent in their faces.  It's a dim vestige of who they might be - young souls, just fresh and naive enough to come alive, if only the right circumstances were in place.

As much as this makes for a kind of saving grace, there's still the sense that Coppola was coasting, to some extent.  She takes for granted that her characters are pretty much screwed, which is nowhere more evident than in the depiction of their parents.  If the kids in The Bling Ring are pathetically unformed, their adults are just pathetic.  I appreciated the comic moments that Leslie Mann delivered for the film, but it's a flaw that her character, as well as the other parents we see (fleetingly), are never more than punchlines.  It's all well and good that they are shown through their absence, but the aggregate effect betrays a lack of interest in the deeper underpinnings of the story.  It's disappointing that Coppola, faced with a cast of characters that overwhelmed her in their banality, took the easy road of soft satire.  There is always more beneath the surface, as Coppola demonstrated so brilliantly in Lost in Translation.  You just have to be willing to see it through.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Upstream Color

(Shane Carruth, USA, 2013)

Nifty, but not the game changer that I had allowed myself to expect.  There's a ton of stuff to admire about Upstream Color, from the concept all the way through the dazzling execution.   Carruth is a meteoric talent, there's no doubt.  Liking or not liking this movie will largely depend, or at least it did for me, on whether one is able to accept the odd, disjunctive way that Carruth plays in a few different genres.  The most captivating moments, for me, came early in the film, where the mode seems to be sci-fi thriller.  Amy Seimetz (she's wonderful) being drugged and swindled is both squirm-inducing and riveting to watch.  The means by which the "thief" manages to get all her savings captivate not just as ingenious story ideas but also register on the level of the metaphysics that Carruth expands as the film progresses.  The utter vulnerability of the characters is the key to their actions; although the world the film presents looks very much like our own, there is something not quite right about it.  The camera records things in a lushly naturalistic way, but the editing and the sound design turn it into a fractured collage of anxiety and loneliness.  Families, friends, society seem to exist outside the frame, if they exist at all.

As the film wanders from thriller to body horror to mystery to modern-ennui dream mode, the overall quality don't always stay consistent.  Temperamentally, I'm less inclined to enjoy the velocity at which Carruth prefers to work; there's a restlessness to it that seems to belie a lack of confidence in some of the images and ideas.  And I confess to not understanding, or at least only vaguely understanding, what some of those ideas are.  Parts of the story are easy enough to get, but the film is committed to raising far more questions than it answers.  This is all well and good when it comes to meaning, of course, but the plot itself begins to take on a Chinese-box style air of mystery, with each tentative link exposing more questions in need of answering.

Overall the film does impress and delight, but it also disappoints, if only because its ambition is so evident.   Through all of the high-minded hinting about love, social alienation, and metaphysical connection, there is an unwillingess to let these ideas breathe.  Carruth remains enamored of the more plotty, earth-bound tropes of noir and horror - all of which is fine, except he seems slightly uncomfortable with them, as if he felt the need to transcend their tawdriness.  So he's stuck, in a sense, between heaven and earth.  Between some rather awesome metaphysical flights of fancy and some equally exciting, if gritty and terrestrial, storytelling.  Upstream Color is an opus.  There's a world in there, even if it has trouble getting itself seen completely. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1974)

Cimino's debut is deceptively ambitious, and it sets out, with remarkable clarity and breadth, a great many of the themes that he would explore in his subsequent films.  As a first feature, it's astonishingly good, exhibiting a confidence of style, a mastery of tone, and a technical proficiency that few directors achieve even after years in the trenches.   Of course, it's a great movie in its own right.  The film starts as a wild, rambunctious romp, and then turns elegiac, even tragic, revealing a worldly heaviness that had been present all along, hiding just out of sight.  The protagonists are a pair of star-crossed American dreamers, on the run from the past and seemingly sprung whole from the awesome landscapes they frolic through.  Eastwood's Thunderbolt and Bridges' Lightfoot are perfect archetypes and perfectly themselves: two vividly rendered characters who also happen to be the poster-children for unreconstructed American ne'er-do-well-hood.  Judging by the original poster, the film was sold as yet another Eastwood tough-guy caper flick, but at heart it's a romance, both in the old and the new sense.   Lightfoot, who takes on a vaguely Christlike aura as the film progresses, recognizes at once what it takes Thunderbolt the whole film to realize - they are a match made in heaven.  There's a few different ways to slice their relationship, and Cimino keeps it just amorphous enough to be interesting: father-son, brothers, lovers, friends.  Ostensibly, they're friends and partners in crime, as Lightfoot makes clear in his plaintive entreaty to Thunderbolt:  "I don't want your watch, man, I want your friendship!"

And contained within that desire, in all of its disarming directness and neediness, there is something much greater at play.  Lightfoot's dream, which he expands to include Thunderbolt and even, fleetingly, the other members of their hapless posse, is one of an almost religious power.  Through his helpless, openhearted enthusiasm, he offers a kind of grace to the other men:  advanced age that becomes youth, enmity that becomes friendship, and the transformation of crude criminality into heroism.   Lightfoot - the ecstatic lodestar of the story, is who Huck Finn might have grown up to be if he'd been born in the fifties.  His life is a picaresque, but it also bears a mark of darkness: the flipside of his plucky search for a good time is a troubled attraction to mortal danger.  Thunderbolt recognizes this, to some extent, but he's a man whose wayward youth has curdled into a broken-down old age.  He has run out of dreams.  Thus, when Lightfoot arrives, he represents a kind of salvation.

It's possible that Cimino leans a bit too heavily on the Christian mystique angle of the story. As is the case in all of his films, there is a kind of latent fog of meta-textual confusion surrounding the story: ideas that become people that shift back into ideas.  Which is not to say that the characters are ever less than fully alive, just that their actions are sometimes subsumed into the sheer mythopoetic frisson that consumes the director.  But it is in these glimpses of vertiginous ambition that one can recognize the Cimino that would go on to make Heaven's Gate, and it's thrilling to see.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

End of Watch

(David Ayer, USA, 2012)

Surprisingly good.  The subject of the film, and by far it's strongest element, is the friendship between the two principals, played excellently by Jake Gyllenhaal and Micheal Pena.  Ayer is a gifted writer and a keen director of actors, and both of his principals clearly enjoy the work and the script that Ayer has given them.  Formally, the movie takes some interesting steps to distinguish itself from being just another buddy-cop flick: it uses, in a way that's perfunctory but still effective, the found-footage device to depict the action, and it plays the two-dudes-in-blue dynamic as naturalistically as possible, which results in both great laughs and affecting drama. 

Ayer's bailiwick has by now been pretty concretely settled as the gritty, noirish Cop Drama.   He understands the landscape and the characters exceptionally well - he excels at depicting the pathos, the ritual, and the paradoxes that exist on both sides of the Thin Blue Line.  But End of Watch establishes that he's no fetishist for the form; while it never veers too far from its inborn constraints as a policier, it does exhibit a sensitivity to the private and inner lives of the characters.  To be sure, it's a modest ambition at best; the good guy/bad guy divide is disappointingly pat, and the characters are too consumed with the action-leaden beats of the plot to reveal all that much about their lives, but the films commitment to the details is admirable, and makes what could be a depressing genre exercise into an emotionally engaging work of storytelling.

(The visuals are sometimes pretty inspired; Ayer gets impressive mileage out of his use of compact HD cameras.  The action scenes are tense but easily become excessive; he gets across the mayhem but doesn't quite manage to connect it to the story he really wants to tell - that of the emotional bond between the lead characters, which it wouldn't be incorrect to identify as love.)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

À Nos Amours

(Maurice Pialat, France, 1983)

My first Pialat film, and I was hooked from the first shot.  Meticulously observed, fiercely emotional, naturalistic but with a strong, almost instinctual sense of form.  You can see Pialat's roots as a painter, just as you can see his sense of liberation in the possibilities of cinema.  It's a terse, personal work, full of piss and vinegar, just like the man evidently was.  At times a bit too much piss and vinegar, I might add.  What is it about the French, that they seem to have made casual cruelty into a kind of performance art?  You see this in film after film.  People - and not just strangers, but intimates, lovers, family members -  say and do all kinds of horrible things to each other, and then either shrug it off or pretend it never happened.  It's enough to make one think that there was never a happy French family, one in which the women weren't long-suffering harpies and shrews, or where the men weren't taciturn, colossally narcissistic assholes.

But the film's counterweight to its ample familial misery is contained in the delicate, even slightly swoony depiction of Sandrine Bonnaire as Suzanne, the sexually voracious and eminently confused young protagonist.  Suzanne's plight is simple enough, but it's revealed with great subtlety by Pialat (who also stars as the girl's narcissistic asshole Dad).  Her emotional needs totally abandoned by her dysfunctional family, she hooks up with a whole slew of French dudes (and one ratty American), most of whom are as uninterested in her as she is in them.  As we soon discover, the only person she loves is her father, who has established with finality her archetypal paramour - infrequently affectionate, mostly absent, occasionally vicious, and emotionally remote. 

Bonnaire's performance is a pitch-perfect depiction of a troubled teen, and Pialat captures her interactions with effortless grace.  His camera is agile and at times even elegant, casting the same tearless eye on both the breezy seductions and the terrible discord.  It's mostly handheld, but it keeps a consistent sense of space.  Pialat understands, and God bless him for it, that the handheld style should be as rigorous and considered as any other.  He doesn't abuse the jump cut or the motility of his camera, and he has a sensitive eye for light and color.  But the performances are his main focus, and he orchestrates some truly terrific (and terrifying) ones from his talented cast.  It's a fascinating and inspiring new dimension of filmmaking that I'm lucky to have discovered.


(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2012)

I'm a little unsure as to how to respond to Lincoln.  On the one hand, it's a great story told extraordinarily well.  Kushner's script is a thing of beauty, and Spielberg stays faithful to its acute emotional power and brilliant craft.  The cast is wonderful, from the masterful DDL on down the line.  Everyone involved with the making of the film seems sufficiently enthralled and reverent of the subject matter.  It's an unselfish movie, taking inspiration from its subject's mythical status:  possessed of noble, lofty goals and possessing a saving, humanizing sense of humor.

On the other hand, Lincoln suffers many of the pitfalls of historical mythologizing: Abraham Lincoln as America's preeminent secular saint.  As it must, it attempts to deal with the great and terrible question of slavery, the essential conundrum and crime of American society.  But like Django Unchained, it doesn't fully reconcile itself to that fact.  Tarantino's movie misses the point by being fatuous about atrocities, and Spielberg's by his tendency towards sentimentality and myth-making.

It's true that this tendency is mostly kept in check by the integrity of Kushner's rigorously researched and deeply sensitive script.  Lincoln the character is portrayed as a complex, wounded, and often uncertain man, certainly exceptional, but limited by his times and by his own troubled humanity.  But Spielberg can't help himself from getting schematic with his storytelling, bullet-pointing the major emotional and moral beats.  Don't get me wrong - nobody bullet-points as gracefully and effectively as Spielberg.  But at the end of the day, it's still a less-than-inspired way to tell the story.

 The best scene of the film (and it is a film of many great scenes) comes towards the end, when Lincoln has a one-on-one with Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has become a successful business woman.  Keckley makes the point that even for many anti-slavery partisans in the North, the population of American blacks, slave or free, are mostly unwanted.  Lincoln concedes that this is so, and Keckley asks if Lincoln himself wants "them."  His answer is a perfect encapsulation of the character.  He seems to want to evade her question, responding that he doesn't know "any of you, really" - a humble admission that is also a sly dodge, and a kind of misdirection.  As to what will come next, after freedom, he admits to not knowing, any more than she does, and wonders what black people will "be to the Nation."  Keckley accepts this, more or less, but also tells Lincoln that her son died fighting for the Union, and by extension freedom, and freedom must be a precondition for any further ideas of what society may be beyond emancipation.  Lincoln says that he "reckons he'll get used to you" - again revealing someone who himself is far from saintly, and who recognizes that allegiance to reason and certain ideals is what can save people from themselves, and perhaps save society too.  This is the crucial insight of the movie - Lincoln didn't always know what was best, or what was right, but he was willing to listen and reason.  The overall picture that emerges is too pure and righteous by half, but it is in moments like this that the details of life manage to give lie to the myth of Lincoln, and through art, reveal something more. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012)

Tarantino's latest is furiously empty.  What is ailing Quentin?  Django Unchained's best moments are comedic; while the man himself is almost painfully ungraceful on-camera (which hasn't stopped him from making his numerous cameo appearances), Tarantino is expert in directing comedy, and in writing it.  He not only knows how to cast actors in roles that will highlight their comedic skills, his greatest cinematic talent is as an observer of the offhand, the humorous, and the stylishly idiosyncratic in human interaction.

I've long believed that one of the signal joys of cinema is in the ability to observe this kind of behavior - of people being people.  Theater is naturally more artificial and more immediately physical, features that the best dramaturgs have always used to their advantage.  But in cinema, the audience and the stage are made invisible, the camera and the cut allows the director to manipulate time and space, and the living action of the mind and body become available to see and enjoy in literal and metaphorical close-up. Tarantino is a filmmaker who understands this capability of cinema, this magic.

But Tarantino has devolved into a willfully adolescent filmmaker.   Visually, his films have become increasingly lazy and uninspired; Django Unchained evinces this most starkly.  His writing has become fatuous and meandering.  The story behind the film is yet another rote revenge fantasy, and its pursued by Tarantino with only a modicum of interest and vigor.  Clearly, the man is more fond of writing pithy dialogue and having his excellent performers deliver it.  The characters here are present enough, but again Tarantino seems uninterested; only Dr. King Schultz (played with effortless élan by the wonderful Christoph Waltz) has some sense of personal history and emotional depth.  Even so, his very European insistence upon honor - which leads to his downfall - comes across as mere fastidiousness, given the moral compromises he has made so far.

As a filmmaker, Tarantino has always been a bit more hype than substance, but at his best, he can be a storyteller of significant wit and perceptiveness.  His formula has always been that of old-fashioned storytelling virtues combined with a modish flair for kitsch.  His taste for the lurid and the puerile are part of his charm, but lately he's been relying too heavily on them.  The creeping tendency to tell his stories "bigger," has resulted in movies that are either bloated curios (the Kill Bill films) or embarrassingly glib historical mashups (Inglourious Basterds and this one.)

Tarantino's range of influences and references is wide, but it's a mistake to confuse that with his aesthetic range as an artist.  His best work focuses on small-scale human interaction that is occasionally interrupted by terrible, weird violence.  He has no sense of historical scale or gravity; in Django Unchained, he does a pastiche of historical grandiosity that doesn't know it's a pastiche.  People who say that this film is "brave" or whatever because its Dealing With Slavery are being silly or are actually ignorant.  While it's true that Tarantino does effectively portray the depravity and viciousness of slavery and the ridiculousness of the culture that fostered it, he ultimately belittles it, robs it of its complexity and its power.  The slavers in Django are uniformly absurd and awful creatures.  Most of them are quaintly stupid.  We see nothing of the banality of this particular and essential American evil, the overt and subtle ways in which the "peculiar institution" was reinforced economically, politically, religiously - in a word, culturally.  Granted, that might not fit in the mode in which Tarantino is working, but that's not a reason to let him off the hook. 

I'm going to sidestep the other glaring issue with Tarantino, namely his gleeful reveling in extreme violence, because for me, that aspect of the movie had been sufficiently built up that I wasn't too surprised or affected by it.  I suppose I'm sympathetic with the position that Tarantino's violence (especially in these last two films) is often so cartoonish that its visceral effect is diminished.   The more "serious" violence, or the "bad" violence, if you will (and this is distinguished from the righteous, vengeance-based violence) - the stuff Tarantino clearly wants us to know he disapproves of - is shown as being repulsive and cruel.  Whether or not this is ethically sound is a can of worms that I'm not going to open up here, but I will say this:  it doesn't do the experience of the film any favors. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)

Another foray into the inimitable world of JLG.   As per usual, the experience is a mixed bag: flashes of greatness amid turgid longueurs.  While I don't doubt JLG's brilliance, I'm not as dazzled by it at as the man himself evidently is.  There has never been a cinematic genius as omnivorous or as preening as Godard.  Watching his movies can bore you to tears, blow your mind, and leave you fighting for air.  He ingratiates himself at every opportunity, and not just his voice, but him - this slightly disheveled, maniacally intense, chain-smoking-sunglasses-wearing Frenchman -  and it can be positively creepy.  He can be like a child, tugging at your pant cuffs for attention, or a like a pretentious older brother, pontificating about things you've never heard of.  A great connoisseur of beauty, Godard is an expert seducer, but he is also part of the long, sorry history of French "theory" - the postwar literary/philosophical tendency towards politically murky, irrational, obfuscatory rhetoric.  He fits strikingly well as the cinematic avatar for the peculiarly French phenomenon of the Rock Star Philosopher.   Granted, he's much better than the rest of them, and very much his own creature.  But he is as much a product of his culture as he is a self-conscious creator of it, and sometimes, in the pilings-on of quotations, digressions, and diagetic disruptions, one can see, through the cracks, an ugly penchant for intellectual posturing.

Note that I'm not making the simplistic critique of JLG as the chilly intellectual, lecturing us mere mortals from his ivory tower of cinema.  There is plenty of feeling is Godard's films, once you start figuring out where to look for it.  And he does rather forcibly declare his views, but it is always far too personal to fit the bill of a "lecture."  Godard is never interested in instruction - he is always interested in expression.  He is a collagist, or, if you like, a precursor of remix culture.  His curiosity is encouragingly catholic, at times even un-discerning in its range.  Depicting the rot of French intellectual culture is yet another manifestation of a man who makes himself transparent through his work.  Godard, like any good artist, is a sponge, and his super-absorbency means that we're going to get a particularly close view of the culture from which he's expressing himself, warts and all.  If the experience drags - and man, how it can drag - it usually isn't too long before he quits vamping and finds something else of interest to train his camera-eye on.  A Godard film is like improv theater.  Making it up as he goes is part of the thrill.

And then there's the anger.  2 or 3 Things is a breathtakingly anguished film; at times, it seems as though the director is running entirely on spite.  His view of modern society is delightfully acerbic, and he manages to save it, somehow, from outright cynicism.  My impression is that Godard is far too restless to settle into the stasis of cynicism; his camera, like his mind, and always looking for the next topic, the next avenue of inquiry.  In this film, he hits blind alley after blind alley, finding despair in almost every instance of modern life.  The horrors of imperial war are being played out on the radio and in magazines.  People everywhere are accepting with apparent indifference the predations of high capitalism: low wages, shitty housing, endless advertisements, and the overwhelming grind of dehumanization through consumerism.  JLG seems particularly obsessed with this theme - the way in which people are made into objects.   It keeps coming up in the film, especially relating to women.  Secretaries, whores, housewives, retail clerks - and these are the ones lucky enough to have jobs, and thus purchasing power, and thus identities.  Is what JLG seems to be saying.

Of course, it's more than a socio-political critique.  It doesn't take long before JLG goes cosmic, in the films probably most memorable scene, a series of philosophical ruminations play out over an extreme close-up on a cup of coffee.  We watch as the swirling bubbles form galaxies, and listen to the anguished, hushed whispers on the soundtrack.  Something about identity, words, existence, and so forth.  The image is stunning, and the words are pretty banal - but they are earnest.   To me, the ruminations on language are the most threadbare moments in the film, and they become a nuisance pretty quickly.  On one level, this a byproduct of not knowing French, and having to read these dense little packets of words while watching the images (which are usually excellent) is a chore.  Perhaps if I understood the words as I heard them, it would be a different story.  And it's not as though every phrase needs to be individually untangled and understood - they can only work as an auxiliary to the tapestry of image and sound that are the primary focus of Godard's vision. To me, they seem to function best on the level of texture.  Part of the experience of any Godard film is a willingness to sift through the ephemera; it's a fool's errand to expect every piece to add up to the whole, especially on a first viewing.  If you don't take well to the ample sprinklings of hardcore semiotics or philosophy of language, just leave it alone.  Concentrate on the images and you'll have no less rich an experience.  Godard's movies are eminently well-served by the era of digital video - repeat, rewind, re-view at your leisure.  And for all of the philosophical (and pseudo-philosophical) density, it's not as if the man is incapable of being lucid, and even poetic.  See the sequence at the garage, where we hear on the soundtrack, over a string of glittering images: "I'm seeking a world where men and things live in harmony - such is my aim.  It is as political as it is poetic.  In any case, it explains this longing for expression."  Indeed it does, about as well as it explains his sorrow, his anger, and his fortitude. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

To The Wonder

(Terrence Malick, USA, 2013)

Don't anybody knock this era of cinema to me.  Who could be so ungrateful as to proclaim that cinema is dead, or dying, or in grave trouble, when, in the course of two years, we've seen two new Terrence Malick movies (with at least two more on the way, and soon)?  Love them or hate them, they are undeniably radical films.  Malick is one of the truly great contemporary filmmakers, one whose canonical reputation can be observed as it is being written.  What other American artist in big-budget film is as protean, as unyieldingly and hungrily evolving?  Who else thinks so deeply into the formal foundations of the medium?  Who else as relentlessly idiosyncratic?  There are other ways to innovate, of course, and other radical works that don't announce themselves so insistently, than the seismic upheavals that Malick has now made his bailiwick.  But currently there is no other American film artist as committed to reinvention, as passionate in his discovery of his own vision, and as sincere in his conveying that vision to audiences.

Cinema is our newest art form, and the one that's most reliant upon technology.  We hear about this all the time.  We also hear about cinema's baptism into the world of commerce, how it was born in the arcades, the perfect experience-as-commodity.  But less commented upon, although it goes part in parcel with the other two descriptors, is how cinema was born in the age of democracy.  Deep into that age, as a matter of fact; and it's flourishing and still-evolving understanding of film, with its potential as high art and universally accessible experience, illustrates that fact.  Art civilizes - I choose to believe this.  And the expansion of cinema into all realms, and cultures, as readily available and constantly changing, gives me all the evidence I need.  Art doesn't only civilize, of course, and it isn't sufficient to civilize; but when it offers up a vision of the world that is complete and recklessly alive, sensitive to culture and personal experience both, it shows us that there is something worth preserving, something worth furthering, in human society. 

So yes, I loved To the Wonder.   While no less radical than Malick's previous opus, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a more intimate and a more cohesive work. Where the former film was, at times, teetering under its own sense of scale and majesty, this film finds Malick less conceptual and more intuitive.  Part of the thrill of watching the movie is witnessing Malick discover a new language; like a great Impressionist painting, it serves as a record of both the events depicted and its own creation.  Every cut is felt, every scene has the traces of a thing newly discovered.  Much has been written about the quality of the light; the way that Malick (with indispensable assistance from Emmanuel Lubezki) seems uncannily sensitive to light and color, composing his film as if from notes in a musical score, or, of course, like painting.   Here, the light works both within the universe of the characters and on the level of metaphor.  Besides the contrasts between urban and rural light, and between northern France and Oklahoma, the light becomes a marker of perpetual and universal change, always fading and rising.  It's always in some kind of motion.  It isn't too much to say that the light not only suggests God, but is God - it's everywhere, illuminating everything, but invisible.

But there is also a palpable, sculptural quality to Malick's style, and it's nowhere more prevalent than in this latest film.  With the camera, Malick shapes a world not only of glittering surfaces and refractions, but a space, a physical presence.  I can think of no other films that manages to convey the distinct architecture of a room, be it a sparsely furnished kitchen or the nave of a cathedral.  He even manages to give a sense of scale to the limitless: when the characters reach skyward, you can almost feel the distance.  I'm not sure how Malick and Lubezki accomplish this, but it has something to do with the motion of the camera.  Through his instinctual, graceful movement of the camera, Lubezki makes motion palpable, tilting and swooping with the objects, drawing the audience into their motion.   The unconventionality of this approach is stunning, when it gets you: rather than a window into space, Lubezski's camera moves space itself.  It doesn't just direct our gaze, it sweeps our gaze along with it. 

Leaving the theater, I felt like I did after viewing Tree of Life for the first time, lighter somehow.  Riding my bike back from the theater, I was in a Terrence Malick movie, extra-attuned to the sounds and sights, the color of the leaves, the song of birds.  This feeling lingers and then fades, but it's a contemplative place that I seek out often enough in my own life, and to have it corroborated, aesthetically, always feels miraculous to me.  And it's not a philosophical or religious sensation, exactly; it's much to elemental for that.  Malick, for all of his great erudition moral seriousness, retains a sense of wonder that can only be called childlike.  You can see how he's inspired by the playing of children, how the adults in his movies seem most free when they laugh and clown and gambol like little kids.  Others have commented upon the dance-like quality of the physical action in To the Wonder, but it has to be noted that this is like the dancing of youngsters: loopy, joyful abandon.

As ever, there is little room for psychology in Malick's work.  But I wonder if this assessment, which seems at times to be a truism, misses something that's being accomplished.  It's true that Malick will often use his actors for their ability to portray a type.  It's not symbolism, exactly, but it does consistently hint at something greater than the individual lives of the characters.  And Malick is very earnestly committed to a visual language that relies upon what could be deemed symbols (as an example from this film, the shot of the roaring, tumultuous waters that precedes Marina's assignation with the carpenter.)  But symbols and archetypes don't begin to encompass the effect of these images, and their contrapuntal relationship to each other.   In To the Wonder, Malick has gone deeper into the lives of his characters than ever before, made all the more remarkable by his discarding most dialogue, or even what's thought of as conventional acting.  People who criticize Affleck's performance do so because they're seeking a "performance;" something discrete from the overall composition of the film.  There is no action in the film that isn't furthered, echoed, or elaborated by the other elements - the set design, the camerawork.   This is true, to varying degrees, in any good film, of course, but nobody I'm aware of (at least in the realm of "feature" filmmaking) has taken it to such an extent as Malick.  In Affleck's impressively subtle action, every glance, every movement, becomes loaded with emotion and potential meaning; he's the picture of an emotionally reticent person.  What he seeks in the free-spirited Marina (and later, in Rachel McAdam's character) is that complimentary side of existence, that which is visibly, palpably unbound in emotion.  While representative of very familiar modes of behavior, they are nonetheless very specific people.  Affleck's sense of the world is grounded in abstract knowledge, in direct communication, as when he tells Marina's daughter, Tatiana, about the reflection of the Earth on the evening horizon.  But he delegates his emotions, relying upon Olga Kurlyenko's character to experience the world, on an emotional level, for the both of them.   At a certain point in the film, it really came home to me that these are unhappy people; for all of the exaltation of the imagery, which frequently border on the ecstatic, the main characters are often very sad.  The question that keeps being asked, by the characters and by the movie, is: Why doesn't joy stick around? 

But all of this still doesn't capture the way in which Malick manages to infuse the everyday with the cosmic.  How he manages to approach things with a documentarian's eye and the heart of a poet.   I'm trying to figure out a working description  of Malick's style.  It's blissful naturalism combines with a painterly approach to metaphor, if that makes any sense.  It roots the grand gestures of the poet in the here and now of the political, historical, moment:  This is what makes this film such a leap forward.  I'm thinking of the many interior scenes in which Neil and Marina's Oklahoma house appears barely furnished.  On the one hand, it locates the characters very specifically; they are un-rooted, always in a state of settling in, never fully unpacked, never really home.  On the other hand, it touches upon the fickle nature of love and existence; everything is transient, everything is changing.  How do we keep up? 

And then there's all of the nonprofessionals featured.  (I'm getting back to that previous tangent about democracy).  Far be it from me to weigh down a film as airy as To the Wonder with something as crass as a political reading, but the images are there; they can't be ignored.  It's hard to miss that contained within To the Wonder is a kind of call to arms.  The world he depicts is deeply riven; crumbling, corrupt, poisonous.  Community seems only to exist as a shadow.  Were this just another metaphor, it would be an unbecoming, opportunistic one indeed.  But the lines of Malick's vision run both ways; the poisoned groundwater is our despair of ever holding on to love, and our despair is the poisoned groundwater.  I mean this literally, and I think Malick does as well.  There are direct, physical connections between our current deficit of what used to be called "community spirit" and the deep crisis in our local (and global) environment.  The resolution that the film offers, hints at (and it does this in no uncertain terms) is one of love, in a distinctly spiritual sense - which is to say, a love that both encompasses and transcends romantic love.  There is no love between people that is not attached, in some fundamental way, to love for the world.  Love is everywhere; it's like light.  Use it for illumination, use it to build up your life.  But you can't have it without also having everything else. 

The Great Gatsby

(Jack Clayton, USA, 1974)

How did Clayton get it so wrong?  In what should have been a slam dunk, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, based on one of the greatest - and most cinematic - stories in American literature, the British-born director snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  '74's Gatsby is a prettified slog.  The few felicitous shots and moments that it accomplishes feel accidental, as if Clayton were the proverbial busted clock that's right every 12 hours.  And that may be too generous.  At least Redford is well cast, although he's still Redford; there's only so much wattage he can get out of his Midwestern/patrician good looks and easy charm; the rest must fall to the director, who proves himself, in scene after scene, to be over-matched by the source material.  For that matter, the rest of the cast makes sense as well, but, like Redford, they're all dressed up with nowhere to go.   The movie appears as a sort of blueprint; you can see what it's supposed to do, from a schematic standpoint, but it remains provisional and monochromatic. 

What's frustrating is that Clayton does evince some understanding of the story; he gets some of what Fitzgerald was writing about, and some is certainly better than nothing at all.  But his understanding is just that - the kind of knowledge that can lead one to summarize the plot, make easy judgements about the characters, but remain disinterested, even, God forbid, professional.  As a visual stylist, he's clumsy and uninspired, full of ideas about where to place the camera, but they're all wrong, not least because they're completely impersonal.  It's tempting to think that the book, for all of it's glorious imagery and lapidary, often funny dialogue, is actually an unfilmmable novel in disguise as a "cinematic" one.  And a pretty good case can be made; it's reliance on narration, its exposition-y stretches and fierce interiority, its ethereal hovering between moods, accomplished so deftly with language.  But I don't buy it.  These are technical issues, wholly subordinate to questions of inspiration.  Gatsby the book is great because it does what all great art does: it creates a world effortlessly, organically, that seems both autonomous and absolutely conditional.   What it's conditional on is the consciousness that created it, and the miracle of possessing a consciousness that can experience, so directly, a spark from another soul.  It refreshes the world.  The right path for any director to take would've been to honor their own resonances and emotions regarding those sensations, but Clayton fumbles the whole thing by his fidelity to the Importance of the novel.  Like many other would-be artists before him, he serves the wrong master.  In adapting the book, he treated it as an object, not an experience.

And so we have this starchy, dead thing.  On the one hand, it's a shame, since there's a great film to be made there, and the 70s was the era for this kind of ambitious, high-minded project to work.   Coppola himself might have done it as director, but I'm tickled by the idea that the perfect man for the job would have been Cimino.  There was someone who at his height possessed both the appetite for greatness and the wild, impetuous ambition to make it completely his own. But on the other hand, it works rather well as a cautionary tale.  In the meantime, we'll have to be wary of Baz Luhrman's chintzy jive.  It's very possible that he'll screw it up in an entirely different way.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Earrings of Madame de...

(Max Ophüls, France/Italy, 1951)

My first Ophüls, and yes, I am ashamed that it's taken me this long.  His reputation as a master of the moving camera is, of course, entirely just, and the primary pleasure of this film is in its lush, fluid surfaces.  After the beauty of the visuals, what impressed me most were the uniformly excellent performances, especially the three leads: Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica. 

It's a whirlwind romance of a film, starting off confection-sweet and ending surprisingly sour.  This transition, notable as an example of Opüls' directorial craft, is accomplished with aplomb, subtly but effectively shifting from the lighthearted (and often very funny) moments of the introduction to the stately tragedy of the finale.  It's a mannered film, though, fastidiously elegant, and it never really relinquishes its sense of charm and propriety.  There's no madness, no threat of emotions bursting from  the frame; it's a classical piece, not wanting for emotion but evoking it through the perfection of technical elements.  I guess I mean that while the subject of the film is the fickle and irresistible hand of fate, the form remains controlled and slightly elevated; above the fray of the character's messy, unpredictable emotions.

Even so, it's the handling of the mood, and the perfect showcasing of the actors, that keeps the film working, and that showcases the astounding authorial control of Ophüls.  Naturalistic moments of grace occur with regularity; there's a comfort to the performers, a joy in their expression and their craft, that's echoed by Ophüls own palpable joy in the glittering, ornate sets and costumes, and of course, the sinuous, roving camera, unspooling like a velvet ribbon (or a strip of film) from joy to sadness, from frivolity to gravitas.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


(David Cronenberg, Canada, 2012)

A disappointment from Cronenberg, whom I admire, but who lately hasn't been of much interest to me.  I've always run hot and cold on his films, which can madden and inspire in equal measure.  His singularity of vision is nothing if not admirable, but it can also make for a hermetic and chilly experience; Cronenberg is at times a bit too self-amused and cool for my taste.  At his best, he achieves a quietly powerful poetry of luridness and obsession - the work of an intellectual and analytical filmmaker who also revels in the tangibility and grotesque comedy of human fallibilty.

But Cosmopolis is a wash; pseudo-intellectual claptrap that boils down to fairly tame platitudes about wealth creating abstraction and failing to provide for intimate connection.  Mostly, I blame DeLillo, but Cronenberg deserves some knocks for going along with the whole silly enterprise.  A few times, the exaggerated flatness of the whole thing becomes eerily effective, such as the long take where Pattinson's character surveys the dance floor, or in the theater-of-the-absurd exchange in the barbarshop.  And when Giamatti finally shows up, his sweating, manic performance plays pretty nicely off of Pattinson's reptilian mannerisms, creating a scene that approximates the mood and idea, if only fleetingly and weakly, what the whole thing could have been.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

(Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 2012)

I've got to hand to Kathryn Bigelow - in ZD30, she has made one of the most perfect cinematic Rorschach tests in memory.  One's reaction to the film will pretty effectively indicate how one feels about a slew of issues: torture, war, cinema, politics.  If you like it, but tend to the left politically (or are at least anti-torture), you will say that is shows torture as degrading both to the victims and the perpetrators.  You will say that it depicts the War on Terror as being a colossal waste, an Ahab-like quest with no resolution or redemption.  You'll back this up by mentioning, among other things, the last shot, where Maya cries.  If you like the film but lean to the right, you will see it as a hard-nosed, scrupulously accurate chronicle of the quest to kill the world's Most Dangerous Man, just like the ads say.  On the other side of the fence are those who think of the film as rank propaganda, or that, while well-intentioned, it irresponsibly trucks in distortions of the historical record.

But what's most interesting about the film is its ability to support any and all of these interpretations.  I'm not trying to play some kind of "both sides got it wrong" card, or couch my own views about the film.  I think it does truck in historical distortions, and that Bigelow and Boal were caught up, knowingly or not, in the kind of perspective-warping inside access that has come to plague so many mainstream journalists.   But that case has been made by plenty of others, to varying degrees of accuracy and persuasiveness.   What fascinates me is the fundamental blankness of ZD30 - the way it serves so readily as a canvas on which to project one's own ideas.

At its most basic and important level, ZD30 is a procedural.  Bigelow's main priority is to maintain the story's suspense, and she does this rather well, although not nearly as well as some have contended.  There are plenty of superior procedurals, big and small screen, and much of the praise heaped on the film seems to be overcompensation for the condemnation that the film has received elsewhere.   Too often, Bigelow seems to be using bin Laden's boogyman status as a narrative crutch; rather than generating tension from within the story, she depicts the events with a plodding obviousness, as if it were self-evident that this urgency were shared by everyone. This is made worse by the tunnel vision of the narrative, which is set exclusively within the confines of the CIA and their operational partners.  The mission to kill bin Laden is never questioned, only followed with varying degrees of eagerness.  What anyone personally thinks or feels is irrelevant if it doesn't fall directly in line with the main objective.

Defenders of the film might counter that this is precisely the point; that the assumption that "UBL" is the ultimate kill-with-maximum-prejudice enemy is precisely what Bigelow is seeking to undermine or explode.  But this case doesn't hold up.  If it's true that Bigelow has made a covert critique of the characters and their worldview, she's done an especially poor job of it.  And this is, again, because so much is merely presented, shown without inflection or perspective.  Sure, there is the persistently somber mood, well-maintained but unimaginative and tiresome.  The characters don't have worldviews; they don't have any evidence of inner life at all.  And it's not because computers or modern warfare or whatever have stunted them, it's because the filmmakers don't effectively depict it.  Bigelow and Boal have fashioned a tremendously un-dynamic film - the only thing keeping asses in the seats is the sterile, pre-fabricated suspense over the momentousness of the Events Depicted.  They don't tell a story, they telegraph the importance of a series of actions.  You could commend them for doing this well, but to me, it only underlines the failure of the film as Art.

The question of whether the film serves as propaganda is an important one, but secondary, in my view, to considerations of its artistic merit.  If it were better art, it would make more of a vexing concern.  But we're not talking about Triumph of the Will.  We're talking about a high-gloss commercial product that seethes with a sense of its own importance, but that fails to effectively engage with the imagination; it's Navy Seals: The Movie, but done with a simulacrum of aesthetic sophistication.  Plenty of the film's partisans have argued that ZD30 is too manifestly serious, and too lacking in sensationalism or cheap, jingoistic cheer-leading to be the kind of effective propaganda that others claim it is.  Here, I agree and disagree.  Yes, it's not a simple-minded, chest-thumping fable like Air Force One or Red Dawn.  But that's precisely what makes it effective, especially to educated, middle-class people.  It's earnest aesthetics and heavy reliance on Ambiguity make it perfect fodder for the intellectual class.  It has all the trappings of a serious film, without actually being serious about anything other than some vague, psuedo-journalistic desire to present things as they were.  Lacking ideas of their own, or the conviction to follow them, the filmmakers scrupulously relinquish imaginative prerogative to the false god of objectivity.   It's not surprising that so many found that objectivity to be tantalizing, considering the political stakes that were up for grabs.  But that wouldn't be the first time that cant went masquerading as criticism. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tokyo Story

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Finally got around to viewing a film regarded by many as utterly essential, coming in as it does, consistently, as the #2 greatest ever made.  While I can't profess to being totally bowled over by the experience of watching it, there is an undeniable power to the film.   The circularity of it, the sensitivity to change, the seismic upheavals of history rendered intimately through their effect on a family; it's all there, done with meticulousness and a craftsman's control (and love.)

As far as first viewings go, I was more impressed by The End of SummerTokyo Story contains some great moments of grace and beauty, but overall seems less mysterious, more emotionally and philosophically resigned, and more narratively demonstrative than his later work (Ozu, correctly it seems to my still largely untutored eyes, called it his "most melodramatic film.") There are still elements of Japanese social decorum that seem alienating and odd; I can't help but wonder how much is a stylistic inflection, how much is documentary-like in its specificity, and how much is lost in translation/historical time.

In the same vein, it's hard to come to a workable understanding of the characters, who are alternately opaque and obvious.  The standard solution is to view the story as being fundamentally less individual-based than most Western cinema; characters are, for Ozu, like colors for a painter.   The overall depth emerges from the contrapuntal interplay of the characters, each in their own right providing some dimension or detail that only makes sense when viewed as a whole.   This works, sort of, but I'm not sure that it completely makes up for the strange lack of affect that his characters sometimes evince.  Again - how much of this is accurate of 1950s Japanese social mores?  How much is 1950s Japanese cinematic convention?  And how much is just stylistic shading on the part of Ozu?

And yet, as a master of space and atmosphere, Ozu is truly and obviously seminal.  The slow, subtly rhythmic pace, the emphasis on the quotidian, the endless framings and re-framingings of the image; it's practically ubiquitous now, at least in a certain kind of Art cinema.   It seems to me, though, that Ozu as an articulator or space is more idiosyncratic that I had previously imagined; his spaces, through framing techniques and front-on compositions, are generally flattened and positionally obscure.  His stubbornly immobile camera, lack of transitions other than hard cuts, and consistently low framing lend a kind of modular aura to the space, as if each room were its own miniature universe; it is painterly, static, compressed, even reticent.

Devil's Advocate:  For all of his Chekhovian gracefulness and subtle yet emphatic humanism, Ozu is something of a withholder who overestimates the value of "less is more" as a guiding principle.  There is an un-reckoned despair in his films, a dark side to his gentleness, an antiseptic aversion to messiness in his painstaking framing and episodic plotting.  Where is whatever lies beneath, or beyond?  Where is the ecstasy of vision, of form, of emotion?  Where is the funk?

And yet, for such singularity of vision, for such patient, insistent clarity and purpose, I find much to appreciate...more study is surely required.  Really, I've only scratched the surface of Ozu.  Hence my disclaimer...

The End of Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1961)

This DVD had been sitting on my coffee table for at least a month.  I have no good excuse for such neglect, only that I haven't been much in the mood, lately, for the kind of sustained, serious film-viewing that had previously been a habit of mine.  I've still got a ridiculously long list of "must-see" films, but lately, the urgency of that designation has been lost on me.  I could blame it on an inclement work schedule, or a diversifying of aesthetic interest, or even the weather in Tubruk, but at the end of the day, it's just one of those things.  Ozu was exactly the kind of filmmaker I wasn't in the mood for; pre-1970s, restrained in style, somber (or at least subdued) in atmosphere.  But you know how these things work: what you think you don't want, in some cases, reveals itself to be exactly what you need. 

So the other morning, as the day began to swelter precipitously, I popped in the disk and watched.  And it was terrific.  Ozu is a master, so seminal to Asian cinema and some of the most exciting and original directors coming out of that half of the world, that it's hard to give him his full due.  Ranking is silly, but it works as a quick shorthand, and for me, Ozu only is slightly beneath Mizoguchi, and a hair above Kurosawa, in the canon of Important Japanese Directors.  He was one of the first auteurs to manage the trick of being audacious, even radical, through his apparent subtlety and reserve (a trick he learned from John Ford, among others.)  He's not the spiritual visionary that is Mizoguchi, or the transcendent master of high drama that is Kurosawa, but he nails his own completely distinct and galvanic place in turning the melodrama of the everyday into a dazzling evocation of the deepest questions and values of existence.   His subject was usually middle-class Japanese life - the day to day concerns and anxieties that make up what we usually refer to as the quotidian - but his interest ran far deeper, into the very rhythms of a life, and how they reflected deeply urgent intellectual, moral, and emotional yearnings.  Ozu's world is a private world, and he sees, in the everyday rituals and emotions of ordinary people, the inner workings of the universe.

In the End of Summer, we view the life of a family as it is disrupted by the sudden decline in health of the family patriarch.  Ozu's exploration of the individuals' lives is as gentle as it is lapidary.   His use of symbols (there is a particularly brilliant usage of a blue lantern) is matched only by his ability to evoke a specific time and place.  Through glances, quiet conversation, and idle play, a entire web of family relationships is created and dramatized.  The overlapping spheres of childhood, youth, middle age, and old age are deftly brushed and detailed.  Tradition and decorum are alternately observed and protested against.  Hou, the patriarch, has created a family that spends a large, perhaps inordinate, amount of time worrying about him.  His charming, raffish, devil-may-care demeanor has had the impressive effect of giving him a comfortable life while everyone around him struggles and frets - over the faltering business, over their love lives, over his love life, etc.

In the end, when the carefree soul must finally face his own mortality, things take an interesting tonal shift.  (Incomplete...)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Jack Reacher

(Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2012) 

An old-fashioned shoot -'em-up without a shot wasted, and with its tongue planted firmly in cheek.  McQuarrie can match pretty much any "action" director working today, and is much better than most (I'm looking at you, Paul Greengrass).  He's also an especially talented screenwriter, which doesn't hurt.   While there isn't much that Jack Reacher could be accused of being "about," it does rather adroitly deal with the status of the alpha-male action hero circa 2012.   Reacher the character is a throwback to at least twenty-odd years ago, when the American action-movie hero as rugged, lone individual was still alive and well.  What makes McQuarrie's treatment distinctly of-the-moment is the way it deftly plays that archetype for all of its obvious hoariness and absurdity, but at the same time not denying its cartoonish appeal.  Jack Reacher is a man out of time and out of place; in the digital age, he is refreshingly (and quaintly) analog.  He's a rough-hewn hero, brainy and brawny, who traverses the country by Greyhound, searching for wrongs to be righted and bringing only his impressive skill-set and the clothes on his back.

The main appeal of the film is how successfully it plays through what are by now the classical tropes of the whodunit.  Compared to pretty much any other recent film starring Cruise as action-man, the stakes here are comparatively low; we're not talking about the end of civilization as we know it, but a case of small-city justice.  Several people have been murdered in an apparently random sniper attack in Pittsburgh, and the charge is to find out who is responsible.   From the beginning, we know that a conspiracy is afoot, but the exact details and motivations are kept hidden until towards the end.  The info is parceled out with a skill and craft that one can't help but admire; it's real bricks-and-mortar screenwriter stuff, but done with the mark of a truly gifted craftsman.  This, from the (deservedly) Academy-feted McQuarrie, is to be expected; what isn't (at least to those who missed the thrilling precision of The Way of the Gun) is how good the action scenes are, especially the film's centerpiece car chase.  McQuarrie films the sequence with rare wit and muscular grace, balancing the movement of cars, camera, and the rhythm of montage with a maestro's expertise.  He forgoes the current fashion of manic cutting and spacial incoherence, instead delivering a chase that is both ripping good fun and impressively elegant.

For some reason it has become an uncommon treat to see a movie that tells a story so well, without fuss, pretension, or languor.   Jack Reacher is not a masterpiece, but it is what is perhaps best described as a handsome film; well-crafted and functional, like a good armoire.  It hasn't picked up much in the way of critical love, an oversight that can be variously attributed to reflexive Tom Cruise hating, the less-than-pedigreed source material (who is Lee Child, again?) and its conspicuous lack of a high concept.  But most important to the film's success, and what I can't imagine otherwise perceptive people missing, is how damn funny it is.   McQuarrie, and I would argue Cruise as well, never lose sight of how silly the whole thing is, and their acknowledgement of the kitsch allows the film to transcend its kitschiness.  But here's the thing: it's not overtly showy or cutesy about itself.  McQuarrie is smart enough to know that the way to make the silliness work for, rather than against, the story is to play it straight.  Thus he avoids the laziness and exaggeration that a lesser director would employ.  He cares about the thing, which is secure in its status as smarter-than-average entertainment, enough to make us care also.

p.s. - McQuarrie has a great, serious drama (or perhaps comedy) in him.  I hope that his return to the director's chair of a reasonably successful mainstream movie affords him enough clout to make something more personal.  We'll have to wait and see.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tim Me Up! Tie Me Down!

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1990)

One of Almodovar's early joints in garish color and sexy-cool swagger.   It's taken me some time to warm up to his films, but I think I get them now: they are about pleasure.  Well, sort of; it's more that pleasure is the operating principle by which Almodovar deals with his subject (which is often, but not limited to, pleasure.)  The trick that Almodovar pulls off, with impressive consistency, is being able to have his cake and eat it too, aesthetically (and what better metaphor for his utterly confectious creations?)  He touches upon (and with some later, more serious efforts, like All About My Mother, really digs into) sorrow, loss, and truly exquisite existential pain, but does so with such élan, with such effortless charm, that you can't help but marvel at the wonders of aesthetic transfiguration.  It's the human condition with a wink and a hand-job.

Átame!, like so many of Almodovar's films, operates on the razor edge of ridiculousness.  It starts off seeming haphazard, even reckless, but by the end, if you're paying attention, you realize that this was all part of the trick.   Pedro excels at teasing both your morals and your libido - he dares you to take him too seriously, and then provides enough laughs and titillation and warmth that you'll forgive him for practically anything.  All of which could prompt the more skeptical audience member, after the buzz of the film has worn off, to cynicism.  Could it be that this decadent Spaniard is playing on our pleasure centers a little too effectively?  Is he a mere manipulator, a huckster, no better than one of our domestic weepie-makers?  Beneath the charmingly fabulous decor and top-notch performances, is he just giving us fancy, Euro-flavored fluff? 

Plenty have accused him of just that: for all of his success as a true international art-house sensation, there have always been a healthy contingent of naysayers who don't take kindly to the sumptuous treats that Almodovar is able to dream up.  But at least in this case, I found myself helpless under the spell of his movie.  Whether this is because I like to have my sense of taste flattered is, I suppose,  beyond my ken, but I'm willing to lay out a straightforward, if simple defense.  Átame! succeeds as Art because it is, finally, palpably free.  That is to say, it manages to overcome its own inborn constraints.  Even though the film is dangerously close to being overdetermined, it is liberated by its moments of helpless imaginative fancy.  Almodovar, even in this relatively early film, is already expert at allowing the film to take its own shape; just when you think you know where it's going, it goes somewhere else.  Miranda actually does fall in love with her kidnapper, and it does feel both inevitable and completely surprising (not to mention a little deliberately incorrect, politically).  And that's not the end of the film's surprises. For all of the careful construction of the premise, as the story gets rolling, it dispenses with the obvious questions and instead follows its own weird & kinky road map.  Like any great seducer, Almodovar manages to make giving in seem both naughty and perfectly natural.   We should be grateful he's so eager to woo us. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Year of the Dragon

(Michael Cimino, USA, 1985)

An overheated mess of a movie, but no less glorious for it.  YOTD is Cimino's take on the cops and robbers genre, and it barrels along at breakneck speed for every one of its 134 minutes, cramming social commentary, racial politics, spectacular action sequences, and febrile melodrama into the mix.  It's a sprawling, rococo hybrid of a film, part crime epic, part damaged-alpha-male character study, part ripped-from-the-headlines social novella.  The film manages to demolish any formal structure you might attempt to impose on it, behaving like a bull in a china shop (apologies for the pun), but its virtues are powerfully redeeming and well worth parsing. 

YOTD came out only five years after the debacle of Heaven's Gate, Cimino's previous film.  Considering the Chernobylesque fallout of that 1980 flop (a brilliantly radical epic that was basically shat upon by the critical establishment), it's kind of amazing that Cimino cobbled together the funds to make another movie, especially one with a reported budget of $24 million.  In 1985, this was far from a modest cost, and the fact that Cimino found not only the money but the nerve to get back on the horse after the disaster of Heaven's Gate strikes me as heroic (although possibly not as heroic as it likely struck Cimino, who has always been a shameless self-mythologizer.)

Even so, the damage wrought by Heaven's Gate-gate is palpable.  Cimino hadn't exactly lost his nerve, but does seem to have misplaced his equilibrium.  The movie feels rushed - not just in its frenetic plotting, but in it's utterly bizarre lapses in taste, rhythm, and even common sense.  Granted, this is part of what makes the film so compelling; it's an auteurist's dream, full of tics and wrinkles that can only be the product of its famously obsessive and idiosyncratic director.   There is plenty in YOTD to sneer at it, and 1985's audiences and critics did so with apparent alacrity.  The model-cum-actress Ariane, cast in the entirely thankless role of the successful Chinese-American TV newscaster, is lacking all but the most rudimentary acting chops, and even the scene-devouring presence of Mickey Rourke isn't enough to distract from her obvious deficiencies.  How did Cimino, the director whose inspired casting of Isabelle Huppert and Meryl Streep, manage to botch this one so badly?

These and other burning questions must, unfortunately, remain unanswered.   There is plenty in the film that comes across as almost brazenly formulaic; one imagines that surely Oliver Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Cimino) and the director were aware of how shopworn it would be to have Rourke's grizzled Captain White shout to one of his querulous subordinates "fuck their civil rights!"  And yet it does happen in the film, along with several other lines seemingly torn straight from the pages the Good Cop w/ Bad Attitude playbook.  Rourke fights with his bosses.  He fights with the mobbed-up Chinatown bosses.  He fights with his wife.  He just doesn't give a fuck.  We are reminded over and over that he is a good cop but he doesn't know when to stop, a point sometimes stated verbatim in the dialogue, apropos of nothing other than an apparent suspicion by the filmmakers that the audience must consist entirely of amnesiacs. 

It would be easy to toss all of this extraneous text-based junk into Stone's court and forget about it, but that would be giving a pass to Cimino that he doesn't quite deserve.  His sense of control is unmistakable, even as the movie approaches a shambles. When Cimino is really cooking, the movie takes on the familiar widescreen splendor and baroque yarn-spinning that had become, over just three films, his trademark.  The compositions, whether static or mobile, are always jam-packed with meticulously curated detail; the interiors of the sets vibrate off the screen with authentic filigree and the thrown-together detritus of life.  He wrangles stupendous feats of acting from his best performers: Rourke's portrayal of the tortured and monomaniacal Stanley White transcends the banal scripting and catches fire.  It's as jagged and intense as anything Rourke has done before or since, and it's free of the preening affect that he has a tendency to slip into.  And somehow it all hangs together, orchestrated with obvious relish by the director, who doesn't seem so much oblivious to the movie's flaws as weirdly compelled by them.   It's as if they form a springboard for his more esoteric tastes and indulgences.

And of course, the clunkiness isn't entirely novel.  From The Deer Hunter onward, Cimino's biggest flaw has always been his penchant for drippy, overblown melodrama.  Well, that, and his apparent lack of an adequate cliche-sensor.  His films are littered with double-underlined metaphors and set-pieces that don't quite know when they've outstayed their welcome.  Even Heaven's Gate, in which he substituted graceful, grandiose image-making for the schematics of the screenplay, still suffers from a kind of febrile excess.  (Does the final battle really have to be that long?  Do we really need to see that last surviving immigrant blow her brains out?  Really, Michael?)  But this has always been accompanied by his genius for detail, a counterbalance to his excess in its zen-like concentration on the nuances of a set's decor, the lingering gaze of an actor, the majestic swing of the camera around a crowded room.   All of that is there be to enjoyed in YOTD, if you look past the stuff that doesn't work. 

Which brings us to what YOTD is supposed to be about.  In his previous film, Cimino had depicted an America that was cannibalizing itself, a degraded and chaotic state that was still fighting for its identity.  And in this film, thing's haven't changed all that much.  The modern America, in Cimino's vision, is still the same roiling stew of blood, corruption, romance, and power.   The difference, simply put, is television.  A world of raw materials - soil, gunpowder, fire, sweat, etc. - has been replaced by a world of images.  The pecking order of corporate bosses and their bureaucratic water-bearers remains basically unchanged, but appearances have shifted radically.  Public relations and corporate infotainment are the perfect handmaidens to unaccountable power, and Stanley White, who is, of course, transparently a do-gooder, despises this.  True heroes, like White - and Cimino is a great believer in the American myth of individual self-creation - now must work in the shadows, burrowing beneath the artificial veneer.  The villains have outsourced their cruelty; they work out of boardrooms and city offices, marked as baddies because of their willingness to compromise with evil.

In the film's climatic showdown, a breathless car/foot chase around the port of New York, White finally manages to corner his chief nemesis, Joey Tai.  Tai, fatally wounded, asks White for his gun.  White, beside himself with rage and exhaustion, has a moment of clarity, and hands Tai the pistol so that Tai may die honorably of suicide.  White despises Tai, but suddenly he recognizes their basic affinity; both men are unable to compromise, fanatically selfish and singular in their quests.  White wants to fix the world, and Tai wants to be king, but neither of them is living in the right century. 

There is a nostalgia in this worldview that borders on the atavistic, and it is part of Cimino's enduring fascination that he seems to openly embrace it.   While there is more to his movies than the heroic American loner, there is an abiding skepticism about society that can be felt across the director's body of work.  Heaven's Gate was praised by many (especially in retrospect) for its clear-eyed critique of American class divisions.  It's true that the bad guys in Heaven's Gate are classic one-percenters, but it's also true that the movie's protagonist is a rugged, white-male individualist, himself descended from American aristocracy.  The immigrant community, meanwhile, is depicted in a light that is hardly flattering; they appear mostly as carousers, unwise and unreliable, and they very nearly turn on each other.  The beginning of The Deer Hunter is deeply rooted in the community, but it is the individual character of Michael who winds up as the true subject of the film - another rugged, if tragic, individualist.

But all of that still doesn't quite capture the nuance of these stories.  For now, it's best to say that Cimino's attitude towards the individual's role in society is appropriately complex.  Recall that Averill is among the most passive of Western heroes (he hardly does anything until the very last minute, and even then all he does is survive the climatic battle.  When we see him again, he seems to have reverted to some kind of soul-deadening aristocratic life of leisure.)  Rourke's White, for all of his piss and vinegar, manages to get loved ones and colleagues killed in his maverick quest for justice, and winds up, after letting the main villain kill himself, powerless to stop the overall rot of corruption in Chinatown.  Cimino's lone heroes are tragic lone heroes, and their true nemesis, it seems to me, is actually Fate.  Averill cannot escape his class, any more than Rourke can escape his.  Both men fail to prevent or end the violence they fling themselves into, and both men are obsessed with their inability to play a larger role in the immense, tidal exertions of history.

And what about that history?  Cimino found himself in political hot water after the release of Year of the Dragon, which some, especially several Chinese-Americans, felt denigrated their community and wallowed in crass and offensive stereotypes.  It must've felt eeriely familiar to Cimino, who had also faced harsh condemnation for his depictions of Vietnamese people in The Deer Hunter.  This is, naturally, a complex and thorny issue.  While I agree with some of the criticisms of TDH, I didn't find Cimino's treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans in YOTD to be problematic.   TDH was guilty of playing fast and loose with history.  No amount of that film's dramatic and cinematic ingenuity could excuse its callousness about the fundamental criminality of the American's role in the Vietnam War.  Viewing the film again recently, I was reminded of how little of 'Nam we actually see; of all the films of that period that dealt in some way with Vietnam, TDH is the one that actually seems to be the least "about" it.  And yet that, in a way, makes it all the worse; its use of a large-scale atrocity as mere mise-en-scene for an epic psychodrama becomes a grotesque kind of opportunism.   TDH makes no attempt to come to terms with the guilt or shame of America's invasion of South Vietnam.  To be fair, it isn't telling that story, but the point is that on some level it is.

As far as YOTD goes, it has no such historical burdens.  It likely exaggerated the extent and scale of the corruption in Chinatown, but for me, this is within the bounds of permissible dramatic license.  Added to this is the fact that Cimino and/or Stone repeatedly insert, at times pretty awkwardly, several discourses on the history of Chinese immigrants in America, the long and tawdry history of exploitation and strife, and it seems as though the filmmakers are actually going to some length to broadcast their sympathies, racial-politics wise.  White is frequently accused of being a racist due to his time in the Vietnam war, but the film, in probably its deepest character work, actually portrays him as profoundly conflicted about his immigrant status (he's a "just a dumb Polack," in his own, oft-repeated words.)   He is both fascinated and almost cosmically aggrieved by the apparent chasms that exist between cultures in America.  It's as though he wants desperately to believe in the myth of America-as-melting-pot, but, as an apt pupil of history, he is all too aware of the eternal tendency towards tribalism and blood-based enmity.  The main reason Chinatown sticks in his craw is its insularity; it won't open itself up, it won't subject itself to the rigors of modernity, the way seemingly every other ethnic culture has.  This, of course, is part of his fascination with it; the cameras can't get in.  The corrupt Chinese elders speak often, with obvious disgust, about the "white press."  Because, of course, they have their own, and it's no threat; the media has yet to penetrate their inner sanctums.  It isn't hard to imagine how this must make White green with envy.

YOTD ends with a strange, desultory scene, in which White, bandaged and bloodied from his fracas with Joey Tai, barges into the stream of mourners at Tai's funeral in some manic attempt to arrest the remaining evildoers.  Tracy Liu and his old cop pal (and boss) Louis (the excellent Raymond Barry) manage to drag him from the fray, and White winds up grinning about his own inability to change:  "I just don't know how to be a nice guy."  When it was released, many critics saw YOTD as Cimino's defiant rebuke to those who had failed to appreciate the genius of HG.  In some ways, this is a perfectly cogent reading.  The parallels between Stanley White and Michael Cimino are plain enough; two self-styled heroes who "care too much" and are angrily mystified by a world that seems to prefer compromise, mediocrity, and corruption over truth, justice and beauty.  But very few critics took this reading past its surface, preferring to forget the film entirely (as so many did with HG) and sling mud about Cimino's vanity.  Because, like HG, there is a pervasive sadness about YOTD.  White is a man on a hopeless mission.  He isn't going to purge America of its rotten core, or bring the truth out into the light; the house always wins, and TV is here to stay.  There's a lovely, understated scene towards the end of the movie in which Louis takes to lecturing him on his inability to get along.  He makes a few salient points, remarking that life is compromise.  People going along to get along, in a series of arrangements.   White, wracked with grief over his recently murdered wife Connie, tells Louis that he doesn't want to argue, an in a gesture as tender as it is jarring, leans over to kiss Louis on the cheek, then rises to leave.  But before White exits the bar, he turns back and bitterly reproves his old friend: Your "arrangement" White says, is what got Connie  killed.  This isn't exactly true, of course, but he's correct to assert that corruption is a kind of arrangement, too.  Such an observation represents the tragic bind in which the hero finds himself - unable to accept the world as it is, he resigns himself to suffer for the world as it should be.  His America is pitted against America - and he means to fight to the death.