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A woman lies on the sand, left there by the tides and waves (and in a
pose that would be copied in From Here to Eternity). She reaches up
across tree roots and makes a difficult climb. Only to discover herself
climbing horizontally along a long dinner table as bourgeoise black-tie
guests chat and drink and smoke, oblivious to her. At the top of the
table, a man is playing chess but abandons the game. Fascinated, she
gazes at board, the pieces moving unaided. The woman chases a pawn as
it falls to the floor. Falls down a waterfall. Is lost.
She meets a man on a path through a forest. They chat and go to a big house - at his suggestion - where the furniture is covered with white shrouds, as if no-one lives there. (The inside of the house is quite grand, although from outside it is a mere wooden shack). She stares at an older man lying under a white sheet.
The woman descends the cliffs to the sand dunes and the beach. Two women are playing a relaxed chess and having a good time. She caresses their hair seductively. They play without needing to look at the board. The woman then takes a pawn and runs across the dunes, triumphantly recalling earlier scenes but leaving only footprints in the sand. Maya Deren's second short film is perhaps the only one to resemble her more famous Meshes of the Afternoon in terms of structure and style.
While both experimental films have a surrealist narrative that is suggestive rather than literal, the oppressive, frightening tone of Meshes is here replaced with one of joyous discovery. In Lacanian terminology, it celebrates a healthy return to an inner essence. In this it is almost the reverse of the psychotic nightmare of Meshes. It has also been seen as one first films addressing feminine subjectivity, although an anti-materialist reading would be equally possible (Deren had also been a left-wing political activist in the thirties).
In her classic text, Cinematography: the Creative Use of Reality, Deren says, "In my At Land, it has been the technique by which the dynamic of the Odyssey is reversed and the protagonist, instead of undertaking the long voyage of search for adventure, finds instead that the universe itself has usurped the dynamic action which was once the prerogative of human will, and confronts her with a volatile and relentless metamorphosis in which her personal identity is the sole constancy."
Cinematically, the unmatched shots also create a sense of disorientation in time and space. The viewer is forced to form their own 'story' or 'meaning' according to her or his own ingenium. The use of surreal structure for Deren was not so much an artistic preference as a belief that cinema needs to find its own instrument as an art form, to relinquish its reliance on, "narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature," and its, "timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots."
The fact that At Land works so well reminds us that Meshes was no accident: Deren understood the way symbols are used by the subconscious well enough to elicit direct, meaningful responses in an audience. Sadly for cinephiles, Deren mostly moved back to her other love, that of the dance, in her use of film thereafter. Yet it is particularly her two early surrealist classics that continue to provide inspiration to viewers and filmmakers alike, such that she is still often referred to as the 'Mother of U.S.-Avant-Garde.' She developed a new vocabulary of film images and a new syntax of film techniques. Things she continued to strive for and lecture on until the end of her tragically short life.
Most cinephiles, faced with a choice between an original language,
subtitled film, and a dubbed version, will choose the former. But what
if it is a multilingual film, released in different versions? Would you
be tempted to choose the version of your own language? Such a choice
with Le Mépris (Contempt) yields a radically different experience, well
beyond the mere question of subtitles.
The story tells of the making of a movie in Italy with an American producer, an Austrian director, plus a script doctor and his beautiful wife. The French version is multilingual. Whereas the English-American and Italian versions are entirely dubbed. Crucially, in the English-American version, the producer seems to be followed about by a quirky assistant who paraphrases the somewhat vainglorious proclamations of her boss for the benefit of other mere mortals. Only in the French version, is it apparent she is an interpreter.
This is important, as one of the themes of Le Mépris is the breakdown of communication. Not only are the producer and director at odds with each other, but the marital breakdown of the script doctor and his wife (played by Michel Piccoli and the glamorous Brigitte Bardot) is placed under the microscope. Three further parallels are neatly woven into our story. One is the tale of Ulysses separated from his wife Penelope, in which he is protected by Minerva but threatened by Neptune (Homer's Odyssey is the subject of the film-within-a-film). Second is an examination of the gap between cinema-for-profit and cinema-as-art, partly mirrored in the Le Mépris' actual production as well as in its subject matter. And third are autobiographical references to Godard's personal life both his love life and his life as a filmmaker. Whereas the French version of the movie raises serious questions about the film industry, about the relationship between man and the gods, and even explores some of the more challenging questions about love, life and Homer's work; in the English-American version these things become like added confectionery, arty flourishes for more passive audiences. Or for whom the challenge of discovering cinematic jokes within references to Rio Bravo and works by Fritz Lang (who plays himself as a director) become an intellectual conceit.
Brigitte Bardot here finds at once both a self-consciously iconic and a substantial acting role. On the one hand, her acting talents are utilised to greater effect than in many of her films. On the other, long (soft-core) nude scenes are both complicit in, and critical of, her sex-goddess status. The opening scene, where she teasingly asks her husband which part of her body he finds most attractive, was added at the insistence of the film's American co-producers. Yet its mocking style is almost a lampoon of the use of sex to sell big budget U.S. films. The film-within-a-film's American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (played by Jack Palance), is visibly more enthusiastic about scenes involving nakedness than any faithfulness to the spirit of Homer. Director Fritz Lang, in contrast, goes to great length to examine the essence of the Odyssey, using Dante's Inferno and a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. The gods are created by men, not vice versa, and create the challenges Odysseus is forced to face. It is an easy step to observe how the American producer, throwing his weight around in 'godlike' fashion, both misses this point and actually identifies with the lesser 'gods' of sex and wealth. These gods in the form of a much-needed cheque for Piccoli's character and the dangling of Bardot's allures before Prokosch, threaten both the marriage and the integrity of the film-within-a-film. Contempt breeds among the characters and begets tragedy.
Piccoli also has a great line about exploitation: "Usually, when you see women, they're dressed. But put them in a movie, and you see their backsides." As if to underline the point, Prokosch casually has his assistant bend over so he can use her (clothed) backside as a table to sign a cheque. His imperious and lecherous attitude dovetails the 'Americanised' scenes that show naked women's backsides without explicitness. They contrast strongly against the clothed Bardot who is portrayed as an intelligent woman able to hold her own.
This film is one of the most rounded of any of Godard's work and can easily be viewed as 'mainstream' the more philosophical riddles being purely optional. And if Godard is displaying contempt for the prostituting of cinematic art to big business principally American big studios the style is still reverential towards his American heroes: Le Mépris has been accurately described as, "Hawks and Hitchcock shot in the manner of Antonioni." Godard, like Ulysses and Piccoli's character, has both engaged with the enemy - American producer Joseph E Levine (Neptune, Prokosch) and prevailed. He has not 'sold-out' to big finance but, like Ulysses on coming home, merely disguised himself as a beggar to better elicit the truth. 'Minerval' wisdom shines through (especially from the mouth of his hero-in-exile, Fritz Lang, with lines that reflect Godard's philosophy). When Bardot's character Camille wears a black wig, she resembles Godard's wife Anna Karina. Her story, subjected to unwanted attentions while her husband is absent, parallels Penelope.
By many sleights of hand, Godard continues to 'explore the uninhabited world' and simultaneously produce a film for many different audiences. Le Mépris is very clever and enjoyable to watch, but does it have anything new to say? Or is it an exquisite exercise in admiring its own limitations? The films strengths are less obvious than the overtly cinematic and revolutionary Breathless, or the philosophically challenging 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. It has as much depth as you wish to find in it, and is more convincing than his disjointed political diatribes. But, unlike all those films, it can also be overlooked as little more than a pleasant experience. Especially by anyone who thinks it would be simpler if we all spoke the same language. Subtitles or not.
Meshes Of The Afternoon Meshes, according to Deren, is "concerned with
the inner realities of an individual and the way in which the
subconscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple
and casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience."
Have you ever stopped to wonder, when you see and touch a flower, what happens inside? Unless you are in purely botanical mode, it may very likely spark off something in your subconscious. The breath of spring. The beauty and harmony of nature. Perhaps something given with affection and gentleness. Maybe even a token of romance?
Maya Deren's wildly seminal work, Meshes Of The Afternoon, begins when a rather artificial looking hand places a flower on a pathway. The hand (and attached arm) pop out of existence, immediately alerting us to the fact that this is not a work of literal storytelling. The symbols of the next 14 minutes drill holes into our subconscious, where images speak louder than words, creating one of the most famous short films of all time.
A woman picks up the flower on her way home. At her doorstep, she drops her key. Once inside, she falls asleep in an armchair. Her dream-self sees her former self approaching the house. But the flower is being carried by a hooded figure whose only face is a mirror. Giving chase brings her no closer to the hooded figure it just brings her to her doorstep. This time, when she ascends the stairs, we see her expression. No longer carefree, she is watchful, slightly suspicious.
A breadknife, previously cutting bread, lies on the steps. A phone off the hook, and the knife hidden in the bed. She sees her sleeping form and a gramophone playing endlessly with no sound. Through the cracked window she sees herself giving chase to the hooded figure and takes the key from her mouth. We look again. It become a knife with which she confronts two other images of herself. Eventually a man enters the picture.
The sight or touch of a flower reminds us that the subconscious mind works in symbols. Like images from a dream, the flower can bring certain feelings to the surface. Similarly a knife may be just an implement, or an implement with which we can feed ourselves, or hurt ourselves. Meshes Of The Afternoon soon evokes Freudian implications. Is the man coming home from work the fulfillment of her romantic dreams or their frustration? As an outside force, he can be a blessing or a threat, just as a mirror can show oneself or a reveal a hidden person. But Deren hotly denied it was surrealist. Whereas the surrealist is parodic, Deren is deadly serious. To her, their work was like doodling with symbols. Her polemics castigated surrealists for 'abnegating the agency of consciousness.' The role of the artist, she said, had degenerated. "His achievement, if any, consists in a titillating reproduction of reality which can be enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort by an audience too comatose to take the exercise of a direct experience of life."
The music (by Deren's third husband, and added 16 years later) adds to the sense of rising paranoia and dread. Its ritualistic feel has persuaded some commentators to suggest that the double characters and constantly changing identities stem from Deren's interest in Voodoo (her writings on the subject are still a leading authority - she was later initiated as a Voodoo priestess). Yet it wasn't until 1947, four years later, that Deren received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship that enabled her to begin visiting Haiti to study Voodoo. More likely they are indicative of an early grasp of psychology, a deep interest of hers and one which she shared with her father.
To signify the hooded figure as the Grim Reaper is also to trivialize and pigeon hole a symbol capable of many equally valid interpretations. Some feminist readings centre on the frustration of a woman left at home all day. Yet we can also look at it in the sense of someone coming to know themselves and risking their sanity in the process.
On a technical level, Meshes Of The Afternoon, shot on a miniscule budget, has almost non-existent production values and may fail easily to engage modern audiences. It has total disregard for Hollywood convention (the word 'Hollywood' in the opening titles could even be read as frustration with the barrenness of the industry there). There is an superficial similarity with works by Shirley Clarke or the early surrealism of Bunuel. Structurally, we can see its influence in Lynch's Lost Highway, where no explanation is given or needed for one thing (or person) turning into another (though some of the explicit symbols are explored more thoroughly in Lynch's later works, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire). By understanding Meshes Of The Afternoon, such 'populist' surrealism becomes child's play. As a journey of self-discovery with deep overtones, it follows a similar (though less tragic) theme to Nina Menkes' Phantom Love.
Some commentators have cast doubt over whether Deren was the primary artistic force in the film, saying it is largely the work of her husband Alexander Hammid. Deren's biographers disagree. Certainly it is her most famous, complex and mature piece of cinema, although her next film, At Land, maintained some of the enigmatic structure of Meshes Of The Afternoon. Later, her works would focus more on dance-film (except, perhaps, for her documentary on Voodoo, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti). But whoever was behind Meshes, there are few segments of 14 minutes that remain so disturbing, so infinitely re-watchable, and so influential to this day.
I wouldn't easily believe that yet another movie could squeeze a tear
from me to the tune of The Sounds of Silence. In The Watchmen, a coffin
of a murdered, unloved anti-hero is lowered into the ground. But the
scene is juxtaposed with images of the U.S. in Vietnam, bringing to
mind the terrific human sacrifice of that war.
What makes the song more poignant is the silent message. The film has rewritten history so that America achieves greater triumph in the war - with the aid of a super-being, Dr Manhattan. We are asked to mourn heroes victorious in death. But we know the reality to be much sadder.
Music is used throughout The Watchmen sparingly but always to great effect. Comfortably seated in the cinema, I thought I was still watching trailers as the film started. As an extremely unrealistic fight unfolds I make a mental note to avoid whatever film is being touted. But as the credits gather pace I struggle to come to terms with whatever is about to begin. In rapid succession, JFK is assassinated, Warhol heralds the pointless as fashionable, someone lands on the moon, Bowie ambles along outside a gig in a Ziggy Stardust mask and . . .
Masks. Always fashionable. In arts, literature and crime. Who can deny the lure of being anonymous? The flirtation for which you don't have to account. The character greater than yourself. For good or evil, masks are a liberation.
Suddenly Dylan's gritty, Times They Are a-Changin' cuts across the confusing tableau of history and fiction and we realize a joke is being played. The mask slips. We don't have to take it all so seriously. A grotesque ensemble of police officers pose for the camera. They will develop into a new breed of crime fighters to carry on where the police leave off. Eventually, as our story gets into full flow, they have evolved into 'The Watchmen' and one or two have picked up superpowers along the way. Dylan's compositions feature again later in the film with Hendrix's blazing All Along the Watchtower cover and end with a barley recognizable punk cover of Desolation Row by My Chemical Romance.
The film combines comic-strip with film noir. ¨The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood.¨ It's almost a Sin City with real people. It's a city that, ¨screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.¨ And the city is a pre- clean-up New York, though our tale will take us to Antarctica and Mars as the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war.
The Watchmen excels at defying expectations. If director Zack Snyder's previous offering, 300, was a little one-dimensional, The Watchmen almost suffers from the opposite. The film squeezes (with a few alterations) a dozen apocalyptically awesome comic episodes into a mammoth story, preserving much of the original's intention to question our assumptions about superheroes or the black-and-white nature of good and bad. Intellectually and graphically, it is comic-strip for adults.
But although Snyder has pulled off a remarkable achievement, The Watchmen almost suffers from the excess of its own success. The 'wow' factor is maintained for almost three hours and with little breathing space. Ham-acting is mirrored against genuine tear-jerking moments. Dialogue is edgy. Special effects are sheer brilliance. But after a couple of hours I was almost suffering from adrenalin overload. There were any number of moments when the credits could have rolled and I would have applauded an excellent ending. Not that any footage is gratuitous or wasted. Snyder hammers his points home as our sympathies are pulled by different arguments and different Watchmen. Can moral righteousness have a point if it doesn't work? Is there an alternative to a cynical view of man's animal nature? The questions are asked without once being patronizing or overly simplistic. But the experience may leave you somewhat exhausted.
Revolutionary Road is an exquisite piece of serious melodrama. Much of
the emotional depth relies on what we don't see. Don't hear. And don't
have explained. Characters control their feelings rather more than
American cinema would usually like them to. That, will hopefully put
off many a teenage cinemagoer who would be bored rigid by a lack of
explosions. A lack of over-acting. A lack of subject matter one can
relate to without at least one failed marriage, one relationship you
get up for but would rather not, and a long period where the choice
between emptiness and hopelessness stretches out like a life sentence.
Di Caprio an Winslet are reunited. This time, it's not Titanic that
fails to reach its destination, it's the American Dream.
Take a moment to recall a time when you had something all figured out. How everything would be just perfect. If only people would do it your way? Trapped inside individual visions of perfection, Frank and April communicate at emotional cross-purposes. They are an idyllically good-looking young couple in 1950s Connecticut, buying their first house. Expecting their first child. The world is opening up to them. Have you been there perhaps? Just a few adjustments. Tweak each other's views.
What do you do when you love someone and they won't see sense? Frank tries to disabuse April of her childish notions of being an actress, something she has trained for. She's awful at it anyway, he's right. Why can he not see that this is not the way to be supportive and loving? April slips jarringly from being the perfect wife to putting on perfection as a show. Then she has a bright idea. Let's start again. In Paris. Frank will have time to find what he really wants to do in life instead of an advertising job he hates. Deep down he loves her. If she can only just re-kindle that.
The problem with pretending to be nice is just that. If you have to pretend, then deeper issues are not right. Sooner or later they will come to the surface. Stuff about the symbolic nature of the title (the street where Frank and April live is called Revolutionary Road) could fill pages. But the film's strength is that any deeper meanings are secondary. There is sometimes a great temptation (certainly by this writer) to interpret films within a social context, to analyse their moral agenda. While this provides intelligent gratification of consciousness, it can blind us to the power of film as autonomous art, the precise use of a dramatic device for its own sake, the carefully crafted harmony of costume, lighting, sets, inflection and intonation, and the many formal techniques unique to cinema among the arts.
Winslet is here most diva-like, more self-assured than in many of her flamboyantly emotional parts. She delivers her lines with scalpel-like precision, and at last cuts the profile of an actress destined to become legend. Di Caprio is still underestimated as an actor in my opinion. Here, he plays off Winslet with the fire of a young Brando. As they throw emotional punches at each other, they are like two five-star boxers. A surgical jab to weeping wounds which hide tears. Pain inflicted without breaking rules. The cut and thrust of barbed words eliciting the worst. Is change possible without destruction? Bring on a neighbour's son, a mathematics Ph.D certifiably unsocial after repeated electric shock treatment to 'fix' him. Now a Village Fool like those of legend, who can speak the truth that no-one dares. Nowhere is such an occasionally theatrical device deployed more scathingly than with Michael Shannon's character, John Givings. A man who is past caring, towering over Frank and April physically and intellectually, he shreds any illusions we dare hold for their sake.
Perhaps I am wrong about teenage audiences. Some did walk out. But I remember Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. One of the first 'adult' themed films I saw as a young lad. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, bickering incessantly, and pointlessly showing off encyclopaedic command of words just to needle each other. I had to make myself sit through it. But the film made a deep impression and I look back on it now as a classic. I hope some young viewers will have the same experience with this Revolutionary Road.
People who enjoy intellectual and emotionally stimulating films might
not immediately be drawn to a title like Rachel Getting Married. But
the misleadingly lightweight description belies a depth and fireball
intensity that should only be avoided by fans of superficial rom-com.
The unassuming title is typical of this under-sold, unpretentious, and
unashamedly honest piece of film-making.
Anne Hathaway (Devil Wears Prada) plays Kym. She returns to the family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel. Kym's spent ten years in rehab and injects an edgy, biting presence to the atmosphere of harmony and joy. It is a film that combines caustic emotional intensity with genuine respect for American inventiveness where beautiful weddings are concerned. Rachel Getting Married makes us ask how far we would go in extending understanding to that sibling who threatens our happiness.
Determined to break formulas, director Jonathan Demme takes a freewheeling approach and provides documentary-like substance to this unusual family drama. "We never rehearsed before filming, and we rarely planned a shot in advance," says Demme. Techniques behind character creation in this excellent example of American art-house almost echo the improvisational methods of British filmmaker Mike Leigh. Explains Demme, " I told the actors that they had to take us through a complete wedding, and incidentally, they had to stage it themselves." The result is cohesiveness between the players and striking realism. At one point, when Hathaway was performing a high-voltage scene, she had complained to the assistant director that musicians outside were distracting her. Demme tells her to let her character do something about it. So, (in the film) she erupts at them, at the same time trying to explain and counter their incomprehension.
It's a powerhouse performance from Hathaway. Like a shipwrecked Amy Winehouse at a Queen's garden party. She is frequently free of make-up, and bereft of any port in her storm. Irritating as she is, we have to sympathise with this girl who everyone is tactfully desperate to unacknowledge. Prepare now for a new Hathaway that looks as if she has 20 years Broadway and London West End under her belt. There are elements of the articulate, intelligent unstoppability of Juno, but also the interiorised torment of Girl Interrupted. We are pulled between wanting an all-round reconciliation before the wedding day, and feeling thankful if we don't have a brother/sister/friend like that.
These two families are comfortably well-off, liberal, and educated. Rachel is studying for her Ph.D (intelligent, independent women can still marry) and he is a perfect husband-to-be and black. If they weren't both stereotypically good looking, it would almost be a PC check-box too many. But their ideals are stretched when along comes Rachel's sister Kym. She needs unconditional love like a policeman with bullet-ridden bodies needs to show they shot first. Kym is in the wrong. Always has been. As much as she intensely wants to show her love for them, she can't open her mouth without bringing pain and hurt.
The two girls bond across a gulf that keeps widening. A dysfunctional sisterly bonding, it recalls the masterly French film, I've Loved You so Long. But when we compare it with the established art-house stable we also see its limitations. Shot in HDVD, the production values are sometimes shoddy. It intentionally has the look of a very good home movie. Occasionally I have to strain to pick up critical lines of dialogue. Yet it works. We feel we have been dragged through hell and heaven to find a way for these people to communicate. We feel like we're there with them. The joy of the wedding plans is as realistic as the pain of Kym's interiorised stress and suffering. She can only truly relax at the rehab meetings. The families can only relax when she's away, losing themselves in the beautiful wedding plans as they take on a Disney-like perfection.
A diegetic soundtrack featuring jazz players, real samba dancers, and an excellent rock band feels like part of the family. (Many are friends of the director and crew). But although the journey is immensely interesting, there is little in the way of an overarching point beyond engaging melodrama. Symbolism is laid on with a trowel compared to similar European offerings. Constant concerns over the rain before the wedding, and Kym behind the wheel as she drives a disastrous middle path, leading nowhere. But given that most U.S. movies will not take a gamble on anything so adventurous, Rachel Getting Married still wants to boldly explore unknown territory and should be praised for it. It was well worth the ticket price. And the taxi fare across town. And it was well worth the effort to see this movie which is being unfairly ignored by the multiplexes.
Released at that time of year just before the Oscars when glitter can predominate over substance, this film, and Hathaway's grand entrance as a leading actress, is not to be ignored.
How low can you go and still tart something up enough to interest
people with good taste?
The French make wonderful delicacies out of animal parts. Most people would grimace in the other direction while depositing such offal in the trash. Turner-Prize hopefuls have entered aesthetically arranged urinals and convinced us it is art. In the world of film, Trainspotting plumbed the depths of vomit, excrement and drug-taking yet it was hilarious. The Wrestler, on the other hand, is clever but just plain foul.
It's clever because it features an outstanding performance by Mickey Rourke more or less playing himself. And because of some clever analogies between vicious wrestling and seedy lap-dancing I kid you not. But it's still two hours of crowds lapping up grown men and women flogging their meat like animals. Rourke's character Randy cuts himself for the spectators, batters himself and opponents over the head with chairs and an artificial leg, and pumps his body with enough drugs to feed the whole of Colombia. Marisa Tomei as the lap-dancer with a heart of whatever the hearts of trailer-trash single mothers are made out of struts her stuff in front of abusive audiences. At one point she bends over and I am in serious doubt as to whether any dental floss still covers the space between her lower molars. I needn't have worried. The camera obligingly repeats the shot a few seconds later. Randy spam-for-brains has an emotional side. We are supposed to feel touched the way we might if an aunt with Alzheimer's lovingly made beef stew with dog-meat. So throw in a long-lost daughter who has had the good sense to tell Randy to f-off. Randy cries. He makes half-hearted attempts to win her back. Poor sod. A heart-attack momentarily jingle-jangles his single brain cell into thinking he should get a life. But a scene with him serving at a deli counter is woefully underdeveloped even if it's the best bit in the movie. Randy is, however, a believable individual. Tomei's storyline is a little less credible, even with superlative acting. Momentarily trying to transform herself into a Real Person and return the affection of Mr Meat-Paws runs counter to the background already created for her character. Both of them, having lived a life of falsehood, wonder what it would be like to come to terms with who they are.
But don't expect any happy endings from Mr Requiem-for-a-Dream Aronofsky. This is a director who has 20/20 vision to see art in a lump of poo. He is so totally not going to let you off the hook. Since he has obvious talent, one wishfully wonders how he might broaden his horizons. Say, to something inspiring, entertaining or mildly informative.
I have no objection to portraying violence, degradation, and even graphic sexuality more explicit than a coal-miner's w*nk-fantasy. Which is more than you get here. For instance, Hunger, a violent (and even more realistic) film about the Maze Prison, had uplifting themes of human courage. The gynaecological explicitness of Breillat's films questions our understanding of sex in real terms. Even Emmanuelle could break up a long night of boredom. But the Wrestler satisfies neither one camp nor the other. It doesn't, for instance, show us the mistakes he made for his slide into the Dumb Hulk. (A biopic of Mickey Rourke's real life would have been infinitely more interesting.)
Arofnofsky has let go of his artistic pretensions that at least started so well in Requiem for a Dream. After people found his next movie, The Fountain, too obscure, I think he maybe just gave up. Instead of admitting that artistic freedom involves mistakes and close calls, he has tried to make a mainstream hit. Unfortunately, the Wrestler has none of the greatness that made Rocky so memorable. It has none of the entertainment flair that made even Flashdance so watchable. And if you take your significant other to watch it, you may feel seriously embarrassed in the process.
The Wrestler will have its fans. People who rightly proclaim its realism (storyline excepted). Or are so swayed by Rourke's performance that they find the film more than bearable. And if you can no longer get your video of dog-fights with your under-the-counter porn, maybe this is just the movie for you.
I'm old enough vaguely to remember the televised Frost/Nixon
interviews. Even the presidency. And the U.S./Vietnam war. I shared the
popular sense of moral outrage. But I'm not an American citizen, and I
couldn't get worked up about, 'giving Nixon the trial he never had.'
What difference did that make to me?
Something halfway through this movie changed my mind. Mid-interview, attempting to get a reaction from Nixon, Frost's team run footage of carnage in Cambodia caused by American carpet-bombing. I guess perhaps because I was in Cambodia only a few months ago. It made more of an impact. For all my intellectual appreciation of events, I hadn't been prepared for such devastation of a nation's psyche. An NGO worker looked into my eyes one day at a truck stop. She said, "And when I got here, I just cried every day for weeks." I think she knew, as our eyes met, that I, a grown man, had been crying in helplessness towards these people trying to hide my tears for days. Visiting the ancient temples and aid workers, but meeting villagers too, it was hard not to cry. I have never seen a people so psychologically annihilated. The first thing that had struck me was, here is a nation for whom the very idea of hope has been long ago discarded. I wanted Nixon to pay.
The horrific footage doesn't move Mr President, the way it moves me. I want him to have that trial. But Nixon is a heavyweight in every way, just as the actor portraying him. Frost, on the other hand, is almost a bit of a joke. Hardly a man to bet on. Yet from that moment I was rooting for him. The only person with a chance of bringing light into Nixon's disingenuous stonewalling. From that moment, I was emotionally hooked. I would happily overlook all but the most egregious of flaws.
Fortunately, like the real interview series, the film only gets better. As if it has been playing with us for an eternity before packing its punches.
I've never been much taken with Martin Sheen (Frost). I kept thinking of his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen and how, here as in The Queen, it seems too much like an impersonation. Rory Bremner on a good day. But it is almost Sheen's fallibility that allows the rest of the film to shine. Taking us off guard, just as Nixon was taken off guard. A cheap punk on the street who you walk past disparagingly, only to realise he's the mafia boss and you're surrounded. Then there's Kevin Bacon. Haven't I seen that suit in one too many movies? So when he hits me with real emotion towards the end (he's a very good actor) it has a profound shock. Both these men know how to play supporting actor in the true sense, supporting the lead role and the whole production rather than constantly making us notice their own lapels. But it's Frank Langella's towering interpretation of Nixon that eventually makes every other character real. Low-angle camera shots emphasise his power and he looms over us. The most powerful man in the world. And once we buy into that, everything we see in his 'world,' by definition, has to be 'real.'
Frost/Nixon is about as watertight as you get. Adapted by the man who wrote the play (and also wrote The Queen and Last King of Scotland); then an Oscar-winning director who only agrees to do it if he can have the two lead actors from his polished stage version. Remember how Ron Howard pulled it out of the bag with the equally dry-seeming, A Beautiful Mind? Well, he's done it again.
But for all the triumphant battle cries as Frost walks him into a trap, in the end it is Nixon that gets my sympathies. Even more than Frost gets my admiration. As I watch Nixon face his inner hell, I recall every speck of darkness in my own soul. How I never managed to make my father proud before he died. How I risked my career once when I stole a long international phone call in the office. How I cheated on the one woman I loved more than any woman in my whole life. Some sins just don't go away. Nixon becomes the Nemesis within Everyman.
Nixon, like a Judas Iscariot or Lady Macbeth, has no way of ever coming completely clean. But, through the ironic good fortune of an interviewer who outwits him, Nixon receives the gift of being able to say sorry. Sorry to the Americans he betrayed. His legacy, the symbol of ultimate duplicity the "-gate" tagged on to any word so to indicate scandal. See him fall is it then possible (for some perhaps) to open hearts and forgive?
The second biggest thing that is striking about Cambodians is their lack of ill-will. To the one who destroyed their country. Having never hated, they have no thing to forgive. A senior monk instructed me, while I was there, on a Buddhist method of mindfulness. One of the results of this mediation is that one focuses everything back on one's own action, and hence one's own moment-to-moment responsibility. It strikes me that for Nixon, Frost was like the senior monk. The guy who showed him how to face who and what he was. His catharsis. Not that anyone will ever say thank you (to Nixon, that is.)
And coming full circle, that's what cinema can do. It can take something that is intellectually discernible and make it real through an emotional investment. And it does it by means of fiction.
Can you recall being read stories as a child? Warm and tucked up. In
your bed. Feeling safe, secure, loved. And that wonderful, strong,
all-knowing adult giving you undivided attention? You don't have to do
anything. Wonderful tales race before your eyes. Lose yourself in the
prince as he slays the dragon. Or the princess awoken with a kiss. When
we awake as adults, we maybe re-create that security for ourselves. We
read to get to sleep. We read to our own children. We enjoy worlds and
emotions that give us respite from the hard business of living. Why
not? I wondered if Hanna (Kate Winslet) had ever been read to as a
child. A hard life shows on her face. She lives in a tiny apartment in
Berlin. She gets by. But, more importantly, Hanna cannot rebuild her
world through a half hour escape in a novel. Hanna cannot read.
The Reader brings together familiar enough story lines the seduction of a young boy by an older woman the trial of a former SS guard guilt self-sacrifice love found, then lost. But the emotional punch is delivered by mismatching our sympathies to the characters. The people we love turn out to be deeply flawed. But if we hold that against them, are we doing so to make ourselves feel better?
Hanna has sex with young Michael, shortly before his sixteenth birthday. We are encouraged to just accept it. Any analysing over whether it was 'wrong' or screwed Michael up emotionally can be done by those diehards in the cafe after the film. More pertinent at the time is their genuine affection, the superb acting, and the imaginative love-making between an extremely buff Michael and a rather fit-looking Kate Winslet. Winslet/Hanna is the constant transformation throughout our film. She is harsh, convincingly Germanic, and ages convincingly from her thirties to her seventies. It's a make-up job that almost rivals Kidman's Virginia Woolf in director Stephen Daldry's earlier masterpiece, The Hours.
Hanna is brutally honest with herself about almost everything. Except one thing. She is deeply ashamed of being illiterate. She hides it from Michael, who nevertheless senses it. He makes a habit of reading to her. Everything from Homer's Odyssey and Tolstoy to comic books and back again to Chekhov. We realise how important it is to her: she announces to him that he will read to her before making love, not afterwards.
Michael continues schooling to become a lawyer. Hanna is offered a promotion from her bus conductor job to work in an office. This is a disaster as she can't read. She throws a hissy fit at puzzled Michael and breaks up their affair. Later, when we learn she had once accepted work as an SS guard instead of a step up in her old job, we can secretly suspect the same reason.
Although Hanna is guilty of terrible crimes in the past, our sympathies are not so much with her victims. The one survivor has written a damning book and patently done rather well for herself. Elegant and tall in contrast to the haggard and drawn guards on trial. Those indicted are a handful out of tens of thousands. Symbolic sacrifices. Their incarceration allowing the silent others to feel sanctified. Germany righteously punishes its own. Jews are avenged. Justice is seen to be done. But we see Hanna's co-accused gang up on her. She confesses to something she could not have committed. A personal surrender, an over-redemption.
Michael doesn't announce a truth that would mitigate her sentence. He is too ashamed to be connected to her. He disguises it as 'respecting her wishes.' Like Odysseus secretly observing Penelope, he stays incognito. Michael's 'respectable shame' becomes the shame of humanity, unable to forgive, whatever the cost.
Ralph Fiennes, as the older Michael, is well-cast. Although the opening scene of The Reader recalls Constant Gardener (white collar chap with nude woman wandering around apartment), Michael is more of a throwback to the slimy characters that Fiennes specialises in.
At this point I differed from my viewing companion on the film. She declared it one of the saddest films she had ever seen. While I could not get it out of my mind what a slimeball Michael was. We both agreed it was fundamentally a love story. But for me it was marred by an increasing sense of cynicism. Catharsis for whom? As the emotional valence ratchets up scene by scene, I feel sucked into a sick psychopathology of characters whose stunted development was hardly a matter for theatrical wallowing. And while Winslet ages forty years in the course of the movie, Michael simply has two ages played by two actors. At one point amid the dizzying flashbacks and forwards I had to believe Fiennes was twenty years younger as he was wearing a jumper instead of a tie.
David Hare has done an admirable job with the screenplay. But the philosophical questioning of attitudes to people who helped the Nazis is hard to portray with cinema's broad brush. In The Hours, Hare (and Daldry) had both the genius of Virginia Woolf's ideas and Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning modern take to work from. With The Reader, Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical novel has generated a film that is thought-provoking rather than yielding insight. Hanna's illiteracy is his metaphor for modern understanding of the Holocaust. We weren't there. We can't understand. "What would you do?" Hanna asks the judge, not rhetorically, but wanting an answer.
And what would you do, if you couldn't live with what you've done? Even if you felt you'd had no choice? And if even the healing fantasy world of fiction is finally denied you? The Reader is a story that puts nothing to bed.
Che is sometimes, almost like life itself, a bit of a mess. It
meanders. In and around the time of the Cuban revolution and so
fittingly that the film is being released 50 years on but jumps back
and forth to give us black and white footage of Che Guevara addressing
the United Nations. Or meeting McCarthy in New York. And then through
lush tropical terrain, fighting to overthrow the regime in power until
Says director Steven Soderbergh, "I was drawn to Che as a subject for a movie (or two) not only because his life reads like an adventure story, but because I am fascinated by the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea. I wanted to detail the mental and physical demands these two campaigns required, and illustrate the process by which a man born with an unshakable will discovers his own ability to inspire and lead others." With that brief, there are so many different films that could have been made. This is one of them. And rather a good one. Yet probably not the one you will expect.
There is plenty of close-up fighting. But somehow we feel quite removed from it. What Soderbergh portrays is not the action hero. Nor the colourful historical drama. Neither is Benicio Del Toro's portrait one painted in close-ups and interiorisation. Instead, we have the vision. Depicted in a way consistent with the man's outlook a team-player as well as a guerrilla and idealist. A doctor and a soldier who aroused strong loyalty. "I was trying to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene you would typically see in a movie like this," says Soderbergh. The result is casual, desultory. We get the feeling of what it may have been like to be around such a man. 'Political' is simply the mechanism, the "procedural of guerrilla warfare." Soderberg is agnostic about Guevara and indifferent to the rabid hatred of people who have not even seen the film.
Meticulously researched over many years, Che is a considerable achievement in historical accuracy. And yet here is the first controversy. Wouldn't a balanced portrait of such an almost mythologized figure include more of his faults as well as his virtues? I found myself struggling with this. A director who was capable of describing such a multiplicity of viewpoints (in his earlier film, Traffic) or bringing a real character to life on screen with emotional force (as in Erin Brockovich) was giving me something rather bland and unquestioning (Oliver Stone's insipid Comandante was already coming to mind). Che Guevara was lionised by the liberal left from Sartre to Nelson Mandela, and is still a hero to many of the world's youth. But he is also a hated figure by the anti-Castro Miami Cubans, not least for the bloody executions that followed his socialist revolution (a period conveniently ignored in the movie.) I had berated Charlize Theron for her right-leaning documentary, East of Havana , for its mis-statement of facts. But isn't Soderbergh's film, with seemingly the opposite political bent, guilty of omission? "There is no amount of accumulated barbarity that would have satisfied the people who hate him," says the director when confronted with this. Although this will not appease the fervent anti-Castro-ists, it does give some justification to the filmmaker's choices.
Guevara is not just a political-historical figure. Based on the famous photo by Korda, his image continues to emblazon t-shirts and memorabilia worldwide. For many youngsters, it is simply an anti-authority figure. In parts of South America that I have visited, it symbolises opposition to U.S. economic occupation. In other words, a hero. The inspiration (rightly or wrongly) is of someone who put moral ideals above his own material welfare. Not a bad image for a youngster to aim at perhaps. When we analyse the real person (which most people don't), we could perhaps ask if noble ideals are as noble when they don't always have noble results.
Soderbergh has had to condense enough material for a dozen films. The romantic youth so ably portrayed in Motorcycle Diaries left the viewing public deprived of any representation of the most famous and important period of Che Guevara's life. Before we passively sit down to a Spielberg-sized over-interpretation for bums on seats at the box-office, perhaps we should hail Soderbergh for this calm, relatively unspectacular and unemotional account. It is not a political film. But it perhaps approaches as close to documentary as biopic is capable of. Benicio Del Toro becomes Che Guevara with great acumen. Not flamboyantly. Not with great theatrics or displays of emotion. Sincere and almost reverent, he blends seamlessly with quasi-documentary footage. Unless you heard the real Che Guevara speak at the United Nations, this is probably the next best thing.
On the other hand, if your reply is, "United what?" and you would prefer a well-made Hollywood romp, please leave Che to us sad little people that inhabit art-house cinemas . . .
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