Monday, May 23, 2016

Sunset Song

(Terence Davies, UK, 2016)

Somewhat baffling, given the high praise that many have heaped upon this film - there are moments of rapturous beauty, as I expected, but also a great deal that feels stiff, oddly lifeless.  Never completely lifeless, but slack, overly static.  Davies often seems every bit the Classicist, keeping the flame of rigorous, dramatic, minimally-inflected cinema burning.  And yet at other times the lyricist comes to the fore, moving the camera with agonizing severity and sudden, ethereal weightlessness.  But these two sides of Davies, the charming throwback and the canny Modernist, don't fruitfully interact in Sunset Song.  At times, the film feels to be purely an exercise, sturdy and handsome, but without any deeper fire or spark of invention.  It's bathed in reverence, in a kind of careful, kid-gloved treatment of its source material, like the parchment being brought out of its glass case and set before the collector at auction.

The actors are able and willing, and in certain moments they burst into life, as though Davies were seeing them in their spiritual form.  It would be a shame to realize that much of my discomfort had to do with built-in limitations of the production: a slight budget and the compression and ablation that it entailed.  The exteriors are stupendous, yes, and so are some of the digitally-shot interiors.  But too many others are dry, flat, with the dead crispness of digital, lit schematically, causing a hollow theatricality that is only worsened by the extreme stillness and silence that Davies bathes many of the sequences in.  At moments it becomes unnerving, not in the way of High Romance, which is Davies' métier, but in the cold, oddly vacant way of a Becket play. 

Davies is a great artist, and his strange mishandling of the project - even its very conception, with unfortunate overtones of nostalgia and nationalistic preciousness - shouldn't diminish his great achievements elsewhere.  But it does highlight the pitfalls of his sparse, hushed, reverent approach to cinema.  There are painterly interiors and sudden flashes of emotion, but they are small throbs of beauty in an otherwise staid, puzzling film. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

(Richard Linklater, USA, 2016)

The "spiritual sequel" thing is partly a marketing ploy, but there is still a strong, authentic affinity between Linklater's latest and his earlier masterpiece, Dazed and Confused.  Like Dazed, Everybody is told from the perspective of a semi-outsider, on the cusp of a new stage in life, and takes place over a short period of time - one day in Dazed and about three days in Everybody.  Both films deal with with the rites and rituals of youth, as enacted via music, drugs, sex, play, and even violence; with the encroachment of adulthood, and with the vagaries of seeking identity.   The differences are important too, particularly thematically, as Linklater himself has noted: Dazed, for all of its celebration of youthful abandon and curiosity, is, true to its title, as much about confusion as it is about the intoxication of new experiences.  High School is a place to be escaped, the antipode to the nighttime adventures and self-discovery that the film makes so vivid.  College, on the other hand, holds a degree of promise: no parents, fellowship among like-minded (and differently-minded) peers, independence, abandon, etc.  Whereas Dazed had the subtle weight of regret over the incipient pull of adulthood's responsibilities and the squandered days of youth, Everybody looks with fonder eyes on a period of relative freedom and joy, although even here, darker shadings can be detected amidst the splendor.

There are at least two formal modes in which Richard Linklater works: the anthropological and the philosophical.  His best films combine both; the passionate curiosity of an outsider seeking to understand a culture from the inside, and the passionate desire to seek coherence, and even truth, through a union of one's inner and outer worlds.  Slacker, the incandescent oddity that launched Linklater's career, seems to echo his later films with a growing volume.  You can find it all there, in various stages of development: the intimate relationship to time, the relative lack of gravity given to incident, the omnivorous curiosity, the delight in everyday absurdity, and the rough-hewn poetry of human interaction.  The emotional range is there, too: Slacker, viewed recently, impressed me as dark in a way that I didn't remember.  For all of its goofiness and lackadaisical fun, it doesn't shy away from death, from mayhem, and from the threat of disaster.  Linklater is as critical of his slackers as he is affectionate.  From the comedic pleasure of School of Rock to the desperate paranoia of A Scanner Darkly - it's all there in his vision of sweaty, ever-weird Austin.

Thus, the apparent variety of Linklater's career - working with micro-to-sizeable budgets, experimentalism and breezy conventionality, is more united than meets the eye.  And Everybody Wants Some!! is very nearly the exemplary Linklater film, a career high, not least in its deceptive sophistication and richness.  It's a film about pleasure, about joy, and it's also a forceful philosophical statement, delivered in the drawling, even self-effacing manner we should by now recognize as Linklater's signature.

The casual confidence of his main characters - ostensibly jocks, although, as Linklater quickly establishes, this cliché is as false as any other - is mirrored in Linklater's own style: forthright, libidinous, but with a crucial detachment that allows for perspective and analysis.  Linklater is one of our most adroit chroniclers of the artistic dilemma: a desire to experience things directly, to come into touch with an almost transcendent, instinctual feeling for reality, but unable to ever completely step outside oneself, bound to comment, to analyze, to pick apart.  Linklater's surrogate - the strong-jawed and broad-shouldered Jake (a skillful Blake Jenner), is a jock who thinks, who hasn't sacrificed his aesthetic sensibilities and cool-headed detachment to the cult of competition and extreme focus that is college baseball.   When he meets Beverly, played with wit and sensitivity by Zoey Deutch, it's clear that their connection is a deep one.   Her passion and her drive are traits they have in common, but more importantly they are curious, open souls who take the question of identity seriously.

Although it crystallizes the film's theme of the philosophical search for one's self, the romance between Jake and Beverly isn't treated with the narrative centrality that any number of lesser filmmakers would have opted for.  It can be easy to miss the audacity of Linklater's approach to structure, considering how much fun the experience of the film is.   There's no three-act narrative, rising and falling action, or discernible "stakes."  The film is propelled by time, with the crowded, giddy mentality of the characters serving as fuel.  The point is to get in as much revelry as possible before the more onerous structures of college life take effect, and we're along for the ride.

By the end, we can see this as part and parcel of Linklater's philosophical stance: gather ye rosebuds while ye may, with a dash of hard-headed commitment to individual autonomy and inquiry.  Linklater has drawn criticism, in this film and in others, for being too easy on the world, and on his characters.  This misses the point, and much that actually occurs in the movies.  There is a strain of the utopian in Linklater's films, a desire - easily mistaken for nostalgia - for a world in which carnality, aesthetic pleasure, intellectual excellence, and amity can all stand on equal footing.  We can count Whitman as among his artistic ancestors, noting the love of the demotic, the pleasure of bodies in motion, the unabashed joy of existence and in the eternally-returning hope for new experiences and ways of being.  This isn't the mark of a Pollyanna, but of a far rarer type of artist: optimistic and analytical in equal measure.

And the optimism is not without restraint, or awareness of the darker elements of human nature.  Everybody has glimpses we can recognize: the potential fanaticism of a rigid emphasis on winning, the mind-narrowing ways of a singular pursuit, even if it results in the beauty of athletic excellence, and the latent violence that lurks in even the most harmless-seeming displays of male bonding.  Linklater's view of Texas college life, circa 1980, is strikingly free of the tensions we now recognize with depressing regularity: racial, sexual, class-based.  This seems to skirt omission, but only if you don't see that he depicts violence and chauvinism as being in alarming proximity to affinity, hospitality, and play.

And this doesn't yet bring us to the political dimension, which Linklater never ignores.  Just beyond the Arcadian life as an admired college athlete reside the merciless dictates of the marketplace: the very slim chance, vied for by every team member, of playing in the Big Leagues.  This means that for all of the familiar, there's-no-I-in-team homilies of organized athletics, the cold truth of professionalism is undeniable.  It's a zero-sum game for recognition and fortune - as the ruthless and potentially Pro-bound McReynolds notes "you're on your own."  Jake and the intellectually preening Finnegan notice this, and plan accordingly: given their slim chances of graduating into the big time, the best course of action is to enjoy the ride while it lasts, and not define themselves in the narrow straits of their status as college athletes.

Jake, for all of his callowness, shows himself to be wise beyond his years.  In his confidence - intellectually and physically - he approaches the idealized, but Linklater's incisive writing and directing keeps him fully human.  Crucially, he is unformed, and not at all troubled by this.  As a celebration of incompleteness, and the latent possibility of such a state, Linklater has crafted a movie of hilarity and humanity, of great depth and pleasure.  Even the Aristotlian unity of time and place has a deeper thematic resonance: the vital importance of grasping the moment, even as it is always slipping away from us.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about bodies in (mostly joyful) motion, and the hard work and pleasure of a life lived in the present.