Monday, November 30, 2015


(Lee Tamahori, USA, 2007)

Chosen on a whim, I came to this movie with low expectations that weren't nearly low enough.  True, it's pleasurable enough to indulge in ridicule, and Next has nearly endless occasions for ridicule, from Cage's infamous hair to the fantastically bad CGI, to the hilariously hacky script, to the palpable boredom of the actors (even Cage, usually game for any extremity of stupid, can hardly be bothered), but even that appeal has its limits.  The amazement at the consistent shittiness of every last element of the production eventually curdles into weariness.  The film's sole value is as a kind of platonic ideal of Hollywood cynicism; everything about the film screams a lazy, pandering grab for money.  One could, if one were so inclined, get worked up over this; mercantile crassness, utter contempt for the audience, the vanity of a few rich people who are trying to ride the gravy train until the wheels come off, but what would be the point?  The film was a box office flop; perhaps proving that even the shameless peddling of trash has its limits. 

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

(David Lowery, USA, 2014)

Lowery's somber tale is an unapologetic tone piece, emphasizing characters and emotional temperature over story.  But Saints doesn't quite deliver the goods, despite an impressive attention to detail.  It's an unfortunate case of the whole being just a bit less than the sum of the parts; built upon a smart, sensitive script, with a capable cast and an uncommonly subtle visual scheme, the movie nonetheless falters in its attempt to summon deep feelings.  I'm still not entirely sure what Lowery was going for: there are moments where the story feels unintentionally sketchy, half-remembered, and overly vague, as if we were viewing the events through a haze of bourbon.   Lowery's touch proves to be too soft, and the film hovers uneasily between darker exploration of morality and a brighter, more vivid tale of frustrated love.  It's a careful film, a studied film, but its firm, gentle insistence on its own seriousness isn't enough to bring it to life. The fairy tale insularity, which was exploited brilliantly by Malick in Badlands (a clear influence on Saints that Lowery handles rather well) is stripped of any emotional or philosophical heft.  It's a film about lost love and sin and redemption and crime and bloodshed and fate that feels strangely, quietly soothing.

Monday, November 23, 2015


(Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania - 2014)

Viewed in the wake of the recent terror in Mali and Paris and Beirut, Sissako's gentle but searing film grows in its tragic dimensions.  In the West, Timbuktu has long been a touchstone of Eastern exotica; as far back as the 12th century, gold, textiles, salt, horses, and slaves all passed through or were traded in the city, and travelers brought back tales to Europe of great wealth and wonder.  For a time, it was a center of scholarship, representing some of the cultural heights of the early Islamic world.  Today Timbuktu is largely immiserated and in decline, the land becoming more arid, the weather less reliable, and the people more prone to incursions of vicious Islamic fundamentalists.  Sissako dramatizes the effects of one such recent occupation, in which Timbuktu was briefly overtaken by Ansar Dine, an ISIS-like organization.  The persistence of life under these conditions is the basis of the film's drama and its subtle humor, as the residents react to the absurd dictates of their new rulers with bemusement, outrage, irritation, and guile.

The dominant key is one of stoic, graceful survival.  Timbuktu has seen worse times, and it will likely survive its recent tumult, although climatic changes, hinted at in the film, cast a pallor of doubt over even this prospect.  Sissako's eye is attuned to the quotidian, and it ranges from the lovely to the horrific, with a quiet bafflement over the horrors of fundamentalist rule and a deep reverence for the humanity that endures it.  The film is often radiantly beautiful, even when harshness and terror are imminent.  Sissako isn't concerned with delivering the obvious condemnations, instead placing the mundane realities of waging authoritarian jihad alongside their most egregious abuses.  The invaders argue over soccer, they offer desultory reminders of the new rules, many of which are absurd besides being repressive - fishmongers must wear gloves if they are female, music and smoking are forbidden but clandestinely enjoyed - they putter about on aimless patrols, hand down swift injustice when the occasion calls for it.

Sissako has a glinting, brilliant eye but a very soft touch, and there are moments when one can't help but wonder if the subject matter calls for a different approach.  His contrast of the idyllic herders, who live on the outskirts of town, with the brutal harshness of the jihadist rule in the city feels occasionally to be pat or forced.  But this might be the limits of our own perspective.  When we in the West hear of this kind of violence and repression, and it's been a lot lately, it has little more reality to us than the tales of Marco Polo had for the burghers of quattrocento Venice.  Sissako's choice, by not indulging in our desire to sensationalize the depicted injustice, and thus absolving us of our own moral imagination, is bold and canny. 

But even in its foreignness, the world of Timbuktu is disarmingly and alarmingly familiar.  Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous.  Several languages are spoken, including French and English, and translation can pose a challenge.  Amid the Eastern unfamiliarity come jolts of recognition, even more so because of how ordinary they are: singing, playing music, arguing about sports trivia, simple familial love.  The crossed strands of culture and commerce that first launched Timbuktu into the popular imagination remain, but there's a dark cloud that looms over the limpid desert beauty.  There are no real oases.  Timbuktu isn't that far from Paris, or from New York, for all the good and evil in the world. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Monkey Business

(Howard Hawks, USA, 1952)

The occasion of my first viewing of this film, long considered one of Hawks's greatest, prompts some  ruminations on Hawks himself, and his body of work, which seem for me to be perennial.  To wit: is he really as good as they say?  The "they" in this case are, broadly, the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and their fellow travelers, past and present, for whom Hawks was an is a crucial icon.  For my part, despite my great admiration for many of his films, I remain unconvinced that they are fully deserving of the lavish encomiums they received from Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et. al.  Partly, it's a problem of perspective.  To illustrate, then, a pet theory: for the autuerist project, Hawks was the linchpin even more than Hitchcock, whose formal audacity and inventiveness are undeniable, once you know where to look.  Many critics, distracted by the titillation and pulp that made up so much of Hitchcock's content, missed his genius on the first go-around.  But a careful re-appraisal yielded fast results: even setting aside his rich store of obsessions, the technical innovations and visual brilliance of Hitch can't be obscured for long, and his influence was palpable, even during his own day.  Hawks was another matter.  You can rave all you want to about the philosophical depth of Red River or Rio Bravo or Bringing Up Baby, and the attentive, careful viewer may still resist.  Yes,  they're all enjoyable movies.  They are smart, handsome, well-constructed.  But great art?  This takes more work to establish, and the Cahiers critics were more than happy to comply.  What better way to establish the essential value of your work than in creating an idol whose deepest significance you alone can divine and transmit to the uninitiated?

This isn't entirely fair.  It's to the critics' credit, and to Hawks, that both can (mostly) withstand the scrutiny and skepticism to which they are subjected, much of which was motivated by their effusive praise.  It's unlikely we'd be talking about Hawks very much if they hadn't placed him directly under their piercing gazes.  Again: Hitch probably would've be discovered sooner or later.  But Hawks? The winners write the history books, and both Hawks and Cahiers are secure in their legacy.  Yet I still see the traces of a polemic: in Hawks, the critics found a perfect receptacle for their grand ambition to establish once and for all the significance of the director as an artist every bit as great as those in painting, music, literature, etc.  It was precisely because of Hawks' unadorned, raw power, his eager embrace of the commercial side of cinema, his willingness to bend the formal qualities and even the stories to his own indestructible vision, that he was great.  In short, it was Hawks's American-ness.  He was a culture hero that could only be identified from afar, and the Caheirs critics were his self-elected acolytes, interpreters, and rhapsodizers.  In the eyes of his French admirers, he became the American ne plus ultra: fearless, self-disciplined, stoic, efficient, cool-headed but inwardly passionate, utterly independent.  Hawks was the American man who got into fistfights, seduced the most coveted women, drove the fastest cars, wore expensive clothes, lived by his own rules.  He was more Hemingwayesque than Hemingway, because he was both more modern and more classical (the essential Cahiers dialectic.)

He was thus an antidote to the aesthetic refinement of the European tradition.  However much the critics loved and appreciated the self-conscious artistry of Bresson, Dreyer, Rosselini, et. al., what they saw in the cinema of Hawks (and to a lesser degree in Hitchcock, and Ford, and Ray, et. al.) was style that transcended style.  There was an ontological power to the films of the American mainstream - the ones that were directed by an auteur, naturally - a monumentality that was burned into every frame, a transcendent energy that was irreducible even to mise-en-scene.  It was simply there, and you either felt it or you didn't.   Hence the famous panegyric to his work, written by Jacques Rivette after Monkey Business's release.

Rivette's essay is illuminating.  He opens with a brazen gauntlet-throwing, casting himself as a Hawksian hero, making it known at the outset that he will neither quibble nor qualify.  If you don't see Hawk's genius, then there's no helping you.  You might as well pack it in, pardner, at get the hell outta Dodge while the gettin's good.  But he's too good a critic, and too enthused about Hawks's cinema, to let it rest there.  He launches into an extended exegesis, singing Hawks's praises in the highest possible terms.  By the end, one can't help but wonder if one has seen the inauguration of an immortal that has beaten out Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare for top honors in the Olympian realm of aesthetic achievement.   I won't go through the piece in detail.  For all of its bluster and heat, it is undeniably brilliant, and surprisingly persuasive.   There's no doubt that Rivette has a sharp mind and a capacious imagination.  But what about the films?  Do they hold what Rivette claims they do?

Sticking to the matter at hand, and keeping to the spirit of those discussed, I'll say that they both do and don't.  In Monkey Business, the elements Rivette mentions are indeed present - wildness that verges on savagery, the entropic energy of both youth and sexuality, humor that is both antic and slightly unsettling, and an admiration for quick wits and moral clarity.  But do they coalesce into the grand edifice that Rivette celebrates?  If you want them to, sure.  But this is the crucial point of departure. As a viewer, you have to be on board, and you have to lend a certain credulity to the force-field theory of greatness that gathered around Hawks, via his acolytes.  On a scene-by-scene level, the elements of Hawks that feel dated, that are connected to the trappings of genre and to the culture of the era in which they were released, have the effect of distancing one from what lies beneath them.  The brilliance of Hawks lies in his ideas, which can only be discerned by first taking his plots and characters exactly as they appear.  Once you can appreciate the literalness of Hawks, the suggestive side, his slyness, becomes more clear.

In Monkey Business, Hawks charts the intersection of two trajectories - the improvement of modern life via science and the regressive aspects of human behavior.  The youth serum permits a thrilling release in libidinal energy, and chaos ensues.  Hawks's perspective on this is essentially stoic.  He doesn't tip his hand all that much, playing the scenario for maximum fun.  But an undercurrent can be discerned.  The regression is total; not only does the potion make Grant and Rogers feel more energetic, it makes them prone to the emotional condition of children; they are helpless, overwhelmed with jealousy, rage, terror, sexual attraction. Hawks sees the appeal of this as being universal and nearly irresistible; most people, if given the chance, will take the potion and damn the consequences. Therefore the only thing keeping us from ruin is the steely self-restraint of a few heroic types.  But you have to pass through the crucible of experience: Grant can only realize the dangers of his potion by first undergoing its effects.  The Hawksian hero is the one who is capable of self-control, who can channel his energies into the service of order.  On the whole, this is all treated with a frothy insouciance, which to Rivette is the crucial ingredient.  It's the very lightness of Hawks's films that bear the mark of the artist's seriousness.  Confronting the same issues head-on would risk sententiousness; even in the Westerns, with their ostensibly grave stories, are deceptively light in tone.

The experience is hard to reckon with.  To modern eyes, the cinema of Hawks can easily appear to be a romp.  The value of recognizing the bigger issues at stake, and the aesthetic sophistication required to frame them in such a way, is rare in our current culture, where a host of generic styles have come to inhabit the realm of the middlebrow, standing in for actual depth.  But it is crucial to recognize that Hawks exemplified an era, a moment when the cinema had a cultural centrality and a relative anonymity, when it was possible to hide one's obsessions in plain sight, on a gigantic glowing screen.  We have become, on the whole, savvier viewers, but we have also become strangely literal in our search for meaning in art.  The critics at Cahiers seized a moment of historical import, and while that moment has passed, we can still learn from their example.  Hawks, whatever one thinks of his relative merit, offers us an opportunity to see with new eyes. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Assassin

(Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France, 2015)

Hou's first film in 8 years is a foray into the wuxia genre, but it also remains very much within the range of aesthetic and thematic concerns he has been developing throughout his career, now 35 years running.  For an artist of his caliber, and particularly one I personally admire as much as I do, it's impossible to come to his new film without heightened expectations.  Therefore it's with a certain sense of relief that I can report that it's every bit as great as I'd hoped, and in several ways, a good deal better.  To speak first of the images:  we already knew that Hou has a singular eye for beauty.  What's delightful to discover is how he has expanded his range.  We see the familiar glowing, sensuous interiors, the impeccable blend of texture, light, and selective depth-of-field, his instinct for composition, all of which are aided in unfathomable ways by his longtime collaborator and fellow genius, Mark Lee Bin-ping.  But here Hou fixes as brilliant and searching a gaze on the exteriors, capturing the ethereal, uncanny beauty of rural Northern China, with its mist-shrouded mountains, its groves of ghostly white birches, its forests, rivers, and lakes.  A late scene that takes place on a mountain overlook, unfolding at Hou's stately pace as a cloud envelopes the surroundings, first as wispy fingers of mist and then as a field of pure white, is astonishing, soul-stirring, prompting fits of sputtering praise and leaving one to wonder if Hou has mastered dark, unspeakable forces, summoning the weather itself to do his bidding.

A slight interpolation regarding the medium of presentation:  I saw The Assassin, which was shot on 35mm in approximately the Academy ratio, on an appropriately large screen, but projected digitally.  I remain something of a traditionalist and a sorehead on the subject of film v. digital; while I have been duly impressed by the artistry that some directors - Jia Zhangke, Michael Mann, Godard, Resnais, et. al. - have brought to the medium, it remains, by my lights, something of a minefield.  I won't delve into a full-blown rant on the subject, but will simply say that we remain stuck in a kind of aesthetic limbo, with no easy way to navigate the inevitable shifting between formats and sizes that occurs between the shooting and the exhibition.  (Even digitally-captured movies can change aspects of their images when screened, and are subject to errors in framing, illumination, and resolution.)  Bin-ping and Hou's images withstand their digitization admirably, but not without certain scars.  The images seem to strain against their digitized fixity, which smooths out their texture, flattening and compressing them, turning the beautiful imprecision of film grain into a kind of chilly blur.   There are movies that are shot on film and should stay on film, and this is one of them.  I'm sure the Blu Ray will look wonderful.  But for a sixty-foot screen, digital cannot make up the difference, no matter how many Ks you lob at the problem.

There is notably more story to this film than is usual for Hou, which makes sense, given that he fully embraces certain aspects of the genre.  There is intrigue, sword fighting, even an appearance of the supernatural.  But these elements are deployed in moderation, interspersed between the limpid scenes of daily life and repressed longing.  For Hou, the rule remains: less is more (excepting beauty, in which realm Hou is an avowed maximalist.)  As a result, the sudden eruptions of choreographed violence have a potency that is enough to make you flinch in your seat.  While Hou still presents these scenes as being ritualistic and elegant, as per the genre, his sense of realism is never wholly absent, and they have a jarring edge of chaos to them, all the more so because of the relative stillness that surrounds them.

And Hou is ever elliptical.   I won't claim to have followed the details of the story perfectly, even though, as imperial intrigue goes, the basic elements are pretty straightforward.  But this is part of Hou's overall aesthetic and moral vision.  He's never been all that interested in the logic of narrative.  History is always present for Hou, but not in the linear sense we are used to, especially in our usual biopics and period movies, where the standard method is one of compression and linearity: the tangled strands of the past are sorted and simplified for the sake of clarity, and then condensed for emotional potency.  For Hou, history comes alive in stillness, in the micro-dimension of real time, which is then suddenly interrupted by the cut.  Hou is probably most celebrated as a composer of images and as a director of long, flowing scenes.  But this obscures the other side of his art, which is that of the hard cut.  It's easy in this case to invoke the metaphor of swordplay, so we'll yield to that temptation: Hou cuts as though with a blade, carving an experience that testifies to the discontinuity of time.  A battle is given no more weight than an attendant preparing a bath.  The deliberations of politicians stand on equal footing with a child playing with a butterfly, or a woman playing the zither.

It's tempting, writing from a western perspective, to make comparisons to Chinese painting, poetry, and narrative when discussing this kind of a work.  I'll simply say, out of my relative ignorance in these matters, that there is in the film an exemplary commingling of simplicity and lushness, of elegance and fracture, of emotional magnitude and steely detachment.  As spectators, we enter the film as if falling into a dream, where logic stalls and wanders, emotions become heightened and bewildering, and time and space lose their polarity.  At times, the film felt positively like a waking dream, an experience of sensory intensity and abstraction.  The world of the story - roughly, the last days of the Tang Dynasty, in the Eighth Century, is one that is hard for us to imagine, in which the smallest gesture - the way a Lord sits on his throne, or the way one fixes one's hair, or lights a candle, or drinks tea - is pregnant with meaning, suspended in ritual.  Life taken to such extremes can seem ridiculous, even in its beauty.  And yet it is more familiar than we imagine, given all of the signals and codes that still govern our behavior.  Hou is impressed, even awed, by the rituals and the foreignness of the past, but he also sees, in his deeply modernist way, a sense of continuity with the past that can only be discerned by looking very carefully.  Besides the impeccably composed frames and gestures there is also the earthy grit of peasant life, the play of children, the spontaneous joy that emerges from the most rigidly composed of dances, and the massive, overwhelming and ineluctable presence of the natural world. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

While We're Young

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014)

Baumbach, mellowing into middle age, has become more willing to mix things up.  While We're Young is notably less astringent than his previous outings (with the exception of the similarly breezy Frances Ha), and he samples from a long menu of styles and techniques.   This approach winds up being unstable and occasionally discordant, but it remains enjoyable throughout.  The film contains: at least one cheesy montage, a few stabs at broad, silly humor, a side-plot involving deception and amateur forensics, some strikingly earnest deliberations on ethics and politics, Baumbach's usual sharp wit and deft satire, bland lay-sociology, compassionate ruminations on aging and love, to name most, but not all of the ingredients.  So yes, it gets a little messy.  To keep the tonal inconsistencies from swamping the experience, Baumbach wisely keeps things going at a brisk trot, occasionally bursting into a gallop.

Stiller does his usual tetchy thing, and Naomi Watts is great as the confused by ultimately more stable member of the marriage.  But let's spare a word for the usually excellent Adam Driver.  I've thought highly of him since first seeing his work (it might've been in Girls) and I still think he's an actor of remarkable originality and undeniable charisma.  But he's always balanced on the knife-edge of mannerism, and here, he teeters over into it.  Knowing that Driver is capable of better, I'll blame this on Baumbach.  The intention is clear enough: Driver's Jamie is something of a con man, and we catch on far more quickly than Stiller's Josh, who's taken in by Driver's exuberance and flattery.  But the performance goes too far, and Driver seems isolated and self-conscious, mugging and flailing like a far lesser actor.  Still, he's entertaining to watch, and very funny in some scenes, which ought to be a tribute to his talent.  There's a host of other supporting players, all fine, particularly Charles Grodin as Josh's disapproving father-in-law and occasional bĂȘte noire.

There's a temptation I'll admit to resisting, because it wouldn't be fair, to dismiss much of the While We're Young's action (and by extension, the film) as another compendium of First World Problems.  While the subject of money comes up from time to time, there's never any real economic uncertainty in the characters' lives (at least none that can't be easily mollified), and they coast through the New York that exists for the rich and the almost-rich like tourists through Times Square.  But it still seems to require a mention.  The problem is that the New York of (most) movies is becoming increasingly illusory, increasingly at odds with the reality of plutocracy and segregation (both of class and of race, in some cases).  And New York is emblematic of the country at large, a perennial mythological land that exemplifies the American Dream, however one interprets that trope.  Buambach, for all of his intelligence, seems unaware of just how bogus this mythology has become.   He does include some glances towards the deeper socio-economic issues that distantly surround the lives of the characters: war, poverty, mental illness, political dysfunction (Josh's long-gestating documentary project is purportedly about these very issues.)  The director clearly knows that his characters live in a bubble, but its a bubble he knows from the inside as well as the outside.  Thus, his satire is blunted by his sympathy with certain aspects of upper-middle class complacency.  This is frustrating precisely because we all know how dyspeptic he can be.  Is this mellowing, then, a weakness?  I'm not entirely sure.  The last shot lends a certain touch of ambivalence, a welcome gravity, even if it's presented as humor.  Baumbach is nothing if not nimble, and it might take another film or two to see if he still knows how to aim his ire at a worthy target.  In the meantime, his gentle ribbing has its charms. 

The Duke of Burgundy

(Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2015)

Strickland's pastiche-cum-melodrama-cum-metaphysical fable goes wrong from the beginning.  It imagines itself as being everything but what it most effectively is: a reasonably compelling study of a faltering romance.  There are moments when the interplay between the two lovers breaks into sharp, psychologically revealing material, but this rare virtue is made prominent by the moody filler that surrounds it.  The two actresses do an admirable job with their roles, which are minimal but at least potentially strong; after all, the subject of the film is performance itself.  But Strickland overshoots in his attempt to artify the story, which he treats with an obscurantism and a severity that becomes reactionary, if unintentionally so.

We can easily generalize from the film's subject: all love affairs, and even casual relationships, contain inner dynamics of power, which remain mostly submerged, iceberg-style.  In The Duke of Burgundy, these dynamics are made explicit, and are then tested.  Desire is intensified through ritual and overt power, compressing its energies like a spring. Strickland understands the appeal of this kind of role-playing, which plays openly with violence and coercion.  It's dangerous, and danger is sexy, but it's also never without a certain amount of absurdity.  Strickland touches upon this absurdity, and it results in some of the film's best scenes.  But he's more interested in the dark side, in the proximity to death, and the film tilts into airless, dreary portentousness.  It's not that the death angle is wrong - it's just that it isn't explored with genuine artfulness or daring.  Strickland isn't comfortable, or else he's unable, to go beyond poses and into actual confrontation.  As a result, the film, like the relationship, is hobbled at the outset, locked into a cold, stifling rigidity.  When the breakdown comes - when one of the characters can't keep up the act - it's not surprising.  It's hard enough to watch a stuffy, meandering arthouse movie, let alone live in one.  

Strickland is so concerned with not appearing salacious that he never allows his imagination free reign.  So he sticks to a series of formulae, and even those don't comfortable mesh.  Certain stylistic touches are self-conscious pastiche, like the title sequence; even the subject itself - sado-masochistic lesbian lovers! - is a boldfaced throwback to 70s Euro porn/art fare.  Why choose this approach?  It's novel, I suppose.  I don't think Strickland has any better reason.  But it jars with the rest of the film, from its occasional glimpses of psychological realism (again, the best stuff in the movie) to its decorative interludes of nocturnal insects, which comes off as a stab at high-minded metaphor, just vague enough to appear profound. 

One of the axes of power in the lover's relationship stretches between refined cleanliness and excremental filth.  Kudos to Strickland for "going there," which he does (sort of), but the style of the film betrays his essentially conservative vision.  Too often, the scenes are lit and staged with the chilly glow of a fashion spread.  There's barely a speck of dirt in the whole film - at least none that we can really see.  This tidiness amounts to a kind of self-censorship on the part of the director.  The immense forces at work behind the lovers' games are left un-invoked, and the messiness of that desire's birth into form, the extremity of such a pursuit, are only hinted at.  It's a fascinating subject, and Strickland cast a couple of fascinating leads: Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babbet Knudsen both radiate intelligence and emotion.  But he doesn't pursue the more compelling and strange aspects of the story, settling instead for a tease.