Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Counselor

(Ridley Scott, USA, 2013)

A trainwreck, but not without some curious elements.  It's possible to see what some of the film's few champions appreciated about the picture, but they're still giving it far too much credit.  Scott, per usual, directs with impersonal professionalism, sleekly but without insight or genuine verve.  I'm intrigued by the thought of better director's handing of the same script, but most of the best would surely have steered clear.  The only way to have made McCarthy's flabby, portentous screenplay into something manageable would have been radical revisions, including lopping off several of the spiraling monologues.  It isn't as though there's nothing worthwhile beneath all of the portentous heft; McCarthy knows from menacing atmosphere, and a serious condensation by a genuinely inventive director (it's useless to name names) could have been a thing to behold.

But the script was snapped up and sent directly into production by a very credulous and prestige-starved Hollywood.  Apparently, the weight of McCarthy's name, combined with the recent critical and box-office success of No Country was enough to blind pretty much everybody - including several people who should have known better, such as Sir Ridley and most of the cast - to the fact that this hot commodity was a turgid mess. 

Remarkably, the film aspires to tragedy.  There's very little action, and almost none that involves the main characters.  As is usual with McCarthy, the world is one of bleak determinism, spiced up with gaudy acts of evil.  While certainly a flawed man, we're meant to see that the titular Counselor is undeserving of his abject destiny, like pretty much everyone else who meets an ugly demise.  The only people who make it to the credits unscathed are the true villains, who are somehow exempt from the miserable fates of the less ruthless.  But we are meant to pity the poor Counselor, watching helplessly along with him as his best-laid plans go bust and everything he ever loved is mercilessly destroyed.

Again, this is primarily the fault of McCarthy.  There is something sadistic about his worst fictions, which seem to revel in the despair of their characters, constantly upping the ante to prove there is nothing so dark or depraved in the world that his imagination cannot best.  I've no idea if the Mexican drug cartels have diversified into snuff film production, and I don't really care to find out.  But McCarthy delights in rubbing my face in my own aversion; there's always the nagging suggestion that if I look away, I'm just another coward who can't face the Hard Facts of the World.  I know, because I've been lectured by McCarthy in his prose, and now, he's even roped Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt into delivering his spiel.

For spiel it is, and it's grown awfully tired.  The problem with McCarthy's personal brand of cynicism is finally that its wholly hermetic.  He seeks to overpower our objections with the weight of his rhetoric, and given that he's endowed with enormous rhetorical gifts, its not a bad strategy.  But, even if successful, the final result is only exhaustion.  In The Counselor, his imagination is muddied by his relentless obsession with Fate as a cruel, capricious, and inescapable power.  The consistent implication is that we have no better angels in our nature; even if we did, they would be helpless to save us from reality's Inquisition-like punishments.   McCarthy long ago perfected this brand of Predestination Horror fiction, but it's grown stale, and his constant upping of the ante has increasingly diminishing returns.   There are better, more interesting ideas out there.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

(Alain Resnais, France, 2013)

A magnificently odd film by the 90-year old Resnais.  Clearly, a more thorough investigation of his work is in order (I've seen Marienbad and Hiroshima, but it's been many years, and I my initial verdict was ambivalence.  The guy has undeniable brilliance, but I struggled with the reliance on theatrical artifice.)

Part paean to the actors and their art, part puckish experiment in cinema-theater dialectics, and part  serious treatment of love, mortality, and various other verities, Resnais's most recent work, same as it ever was, defies categorization.  As with Jia Zhangke, his use of digital-as-digital - embracing the medium in all of its flawed novelty - is transcendent.  Much of the action takes place in front of digitally-painted backdrops, which highlights the artifice of the medium, while simultaneously providing a powerful, even unsettling immediacy to the action.

Resnais brazenly invests himself in a highly tenuous concept, and his actors - several of France's best - follow him without hesitation.  It's a remarkably tender work, overflowing with affection for the people who appear onscreen.  Somehow, what resonated most is the notion of acting as generosity; in scene after scene, the actors throw themselves into the performances, and we sense that Renais, also, is delighted in being able to offer them such an opportunity to practice their art. 

For a film so fixated on death, both willed and unwilled, the overall effect is exhilarating, and I couldn't help but picture Resnais as working from a place of almost serene belief in his art, and in art in general.  The notion of art as almost magical in its powers, transcending space and time, is brilliantly related. A 20th century play (two plays, actually) based upon a myth from antiquity, transmuted by cinema into a 21st-century experience,  somehow manages to feel stunningly alive, relevant, and contemporary.  It's an enactment of faith, not just in cinema but in art, to make sense of the senseless, to render time and history in an intimate, human scale.  The play, itself an extension of the ancient world, will continue to be performed, not just through repertory theater but now through the pixellated movement of the digital image.  The life that art gives, for those willing to give themselves to art - whether it is for a single performance, as an audience member, or as a professional, five nights a week (or forever, depending on the archive capabilities of digital) - is revealed as a sacred power.

There's a lot to unpack in this film, and it will certainly benefit from being revisited.  Things get especially weird at the end, with the inclusion of a couple epilogues that feel abrupt, if deliberately so.  What was Resnais after?  He seems perfectly content to let such questions linger.