Monday, April 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Wes Angerson, USA, 2014)

Wes Anderson's latest is the most developed example yet of his diorama-style, meticulously curated mode of filmmaking.  In Budapest, he leaves out nothing; the film has wistful nostalgia, wrenching melancholy, antic humor, history, politics, romance, suspense, and even a few jolting moments of horror.  It's a feast of a movie experience, and it's immensely enjoyable.  As with all Anderson films, a ticket buys admission to a fully developed world, intensely interior and yet utterly recognizable in its relation to our own.  It's a bit like getting a private, midnight tour at a great museum; it allows one to personally savor a place, and an experience, of surpassing splendor.

The film spins its web of associations wider and more intricately than any previous Anderson picture, and it's in this characteristic that it is most interesting to contemplate.  Previously, all of Anderson's films, thematically and story-wise, dealt with families. They were, to one degree or another, about the relationships that exist and change between people who are bound together, either by blood or experience or custom, into something resembling a family.  There's family in this one, as well - both Zero Moustava and Gustave H. are orphans, and they become, over the course of the story, elective brothers.  But the relationships here are more complicated, and they are tested, changed, and eventually sundered by forces that are larger then they can comprehend: the toothed gears of history.

It does seem, to some extent, that this film is an American's idealized, imagined version of the refinement and sophistication of a bygone Europe.  Anderson's trademark humor, which frequently tilts into bawdiness, suggests a coarser side to the world and the characters; even Gustave H. is shown as being capable of posturing.  Is this a sign of a deeper awareness, even a subtle critique of the decadence and exploitation that lurked beneath the candied exteriors, or just a coloring of humor?  After all, Moustava, in his elder years, remarks as much; Gustave H.'s world is largely his own creation, imagined as part of an almost-forgotten past.  Perhaps this is the mechanism that underlies all coniousseurship, even all style; one creates an ideal out of whole cloth, and imagines, since there is no readily available model, that it is a reference to a former time, when things were better, kinder, brighter, more vital, whatever.

In this, there is an affinity between this film and Allen's Midnight in Paris.  Both films acknowledge the temptation of nostalgia, the yearning for bygone days that never really existed.  Nostalgia is a powerful, even overwhelming force; at its worst, it can function as a kind of vortex of narcissism, positing the past as an individually created place in time, a repository for desires, dreams, ideals that simply cannot cohere in the tumultuous, rapidly-changing, and perennially disappointing present. 

But so is Anderson complicit in this, even as he offers a critque of it?  It may be that there isn't enough acknowledgement of the rot of post (and even pre) WWI, which was rife with the holdovers of a world of royals, blood oaths, the remains of an "honor" culture hiding behind a veneer of bourgeois respectability.  After all, the wealth that built such grand artifices as the Budapest was the spoils of some exploitation or another, be it Africa, the West Indies, or the virtual slave labor of generations or peasants.

Zero as a character goes a long way in relieving some of this pressure; in the great scene between him and Gustave, after the prison break, he asserts a moral truth and a political awareness that's too easily glossed over, even today, in questions of nationality and migration.  He moved because he had to.  Because of a war (that was likely, in some way, related to the predations of European colonial power), an event, with all of the horror and sorrow that the word entails, of which Gustave, in his cushy, insular, "civilized" enclave, knows precisely nothing. Moustava speaks most eloquently as the voice of history, exposing in Gustave the ugly cultural chauvanism that has been a scourge across Europe for hundreds of years.  Ignorance, combined with fear, combined with the harsh exigencies of the world outside the aristocratic palaces, creates hate.  It's a grave sin that Gustave recognizes immediately, and apologizes effusively for.

There is, finally, a briskness to this film that has the feeling of breeziness.  It's a minor, but significant, irritant, in that it points to a graver pitfall that Anderson mostly avoids - the approach of the tourist.  Elements of the story - certain characters, like Adrien Brody's Dmitri, are virtual cartoons, played for punchlines and not much else.  This is an odd deficiency for the movie to have, since there are other moments, like the train being stopped and the passengers hassled by Naziesque thugs, that adequately portray the deep menace of the times.  It may be that Anderson felt he needed more gags, and a more obvious villain, or it may just be that he got so hooked on the details of his adventure in Zubrowka that he didn't bother with more coloring in the characters; certainly, Gustave and Zero have depth.  It's a minor bug.  The movie is excellent, finely tuned fun. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014


(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2011)

I had some issues with it, but it's a hypnotic, beguiling film, and demands repeated viewing.  My sense, just from reviewing certain scenes, is that it is Somewhere will yield insight into its depth gradually, and only with attentive viewing.  Despite an aversion to some aspects of Coppola's method, I have to admit that it has lodged itself in my consciousness, and there is no more reliable sign of lasting quality.

My chief beef with Coppola is this: there are times at which it seems that her formal preferences are front-loaded rather than arising organically from the material.  Her preferences are clear, with familiar precedents in world cinema: long takes, a detached, observational perspective, a preference for dry humor, and effusive atmospheric affect.  And yet she is a writer of great precision, and a committed scenarist; despite feeling deliberately directionless, her movies are based upon carefully constructed narratives.  The arc of the characters may be muted, but it is still there, and it's vital to the other side of Coppola, the side that isn't enthralled with beautiful moodiness and supple textures.  I refer to the side of her that comments, critiques, and subtly but insistently moralizes.  I don't have a problem with moralizing, and neither should Coppola, but one gets the sense, watching her films, that she does bear some unresolved ambivalence about what she's depicting, and perhaps even about what the audience might and/or should think about what they're seeing.

None of which is a cardinal sin, and all of which can (and often is) the basis for excellent filmmaking.  But still, while watching Somewhere, I was repeatedly reminded of a certain unwillingness to go all the way.  Either to present Johnny Marco's life as much more of a shambles, rather than just somewhat boring (with an occasional paroxysm of existential despair), or to alternatively indulge in the perks of such a lifestyle, with all the easy sex and temptation to chaos.  Show us black despair or show us ecstatic wildness; but left somewhere in between (as, admittedly, is surely the more "realistic" way to go) it feels somehow disappointing, like a missed opportunity.

There is also the part of me that craves more realism.  While plenty of the world film is reliably realistic, there are also moments in which the formal commitments trump what would be realistic, believable, or interesting behavior.  Coppola tends to envelope her characters in the same moody, detached zone from which she films them.  As a result, Marco comes off as kind of vitally constipated, a perpetually hungover cipher who's somehow misplaced his charisma.   To much of the time, he's reduced to awkward mugging, and when he does fill up with emotion - watching his daughter ice skate, making a jagged, weeping call to his former wife in which he proclaims that he is "nothing, not even a person" - it feels jarring, like scenes from another film.  Somewhere spends much of its time cruising dangerously close to the contrived and the maudlin.

At her best, she achieves scenes of transcendent, limpid beauty and wit; at her worst, she delivers platitudes wrapped in gauzy, beautiful gestures.


In fact, I was wrong to doubt Coppola and her method.  Upon viewing Somewhere a second time,  I found myself falling deliciously under its spell.  I think what happened was: concentrating too much on what I wrongly perceived as a knowing commentary by the director, I missed what is so delightfully evocative and steadfastedly non declarative about her style.  Is there any other contemporary director who has a more precise, yet gentle way with images and sound?  That might be too much, but still; Somewhere drew me in, and made me watch and listen, like no other film in some time.  It's true that the stuff about Johnny Marco being hollowed-out, soul-starved by Hollywood, is laid on rather thickly.  You have to look past that, to keep watching. The scene where they apply the modeling paste to his face, rendering him every bit the featureless cipher, is directly followed with the results; Johnny is made up to appear elderly, and his reaction - a deft combination of concern and amusement - adds a layer of complexity to what could have been a distracting, didactic point about the character.  He's not faceless; he is, on some basic level, detached from his own visage.  This connects to his strikingly passive personality, which on first viewing seemed merely to be an error.  Marco is easygoing to a fault; the source of his charm is that it's effortless, and everything from his mussed hair to his off-white tee shirts to his faintly goofy smile broadcasts this.  But Marco has gotten so used to radiating charm effortlessly that he no longer knows how to apply himself to the role that matters most, his own life.  His interactions with his daughter force him to try, and he does, in ways that are made all the more momentous for their being so obviously mundane. 

The other on-the-nose scene - Johnny's late night crying jag on the phone - is also complicated by the scene that directly follows it, where Johnny appears to have once again resumed his mode of unexamined comfort.  He's in the pool, floating on an inflatable raft, shades on, the picture of cushy indolence.  Slowly, inexorably, he drifts out of the frame, his legs disappearing last.  It manages to be both droll and subtly poignant; his recent crisis is no less urgent, but the decisiveness of what might have been a breakthrough is subsumed by the overwhelming inertia of The Good Life.  Even after a rough night, he still gets to spend the next day drifting in the pool, warmly ensconced at the Chateau Marmont.  Turning away from leisure, wealth, and instant gratification ain't easy.

The ending remains problematic, still:  while thematically apt and atmospherically rich, it has the top-heavy quality of blatant symbolism, and of self-conscious ambiguity. After all, where the hell is he supposed to be going?  But even here, I've revised my thinking: what initially seemed to be mere laziness on Coppola's part, as though she was opting for a neat little bookend for the narrative, now seems like a move of exemplary boldness, even if it isn't 100% successful.   This kind of tension - between the symbolic and the literal - is really, really hard to do, and Coppola deserves huge props for how much she was able to accomplish with such a (deceptively) simple list of ingredients.