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One more attempt by a spy film to capture something of the machinations
that move our modern world, the contradictions at the heart of it that
keep it dissembled and ambiguous. It's why I seek these things out,
apart of course from the thrill of secret lives and manipulable
narratives. We can feel our own lives to have a kind of secret agency,
well some days we might, it's what in older times people identified as
Bond and sundry capers give us a world powered by duplicitous forces but an action hero plows through it. Everything eventually makes clear and simple sense, good and evil kept on different tabs. The narrative threads plucked from the motives of characters are childlike; world domination and averting it.
This is a step up from that. We're told that this cranky old agent of 30 years may be working for the other side. The film is a portrait of this man at the center of duplicitous narratives, a narrator used to tweaking truth. Over the course of things we come to understand that a man has his reasons, reasons that go beyond simple right and wrong are are entangled with a whole self. We understand the disillusionment to be woven with the place he worked.
It's touted as a mature look overall, above silly histrionics. But it's still a portrait and feels, like all portraits, the result of something posed for. It's a romanticized portrayal to boot, compared to the real person, serving us the tacit archetype of the stern American patriarch who glares and snarls and is set in his ragged ways that the world has no more use for. Cooper is great but I miss the abstract swim of a more pervasive uncertainty, a work that doesn't just prop up and define a type.
And I spent some time last summer, boring time, with a CIA paper on counter intelligence from Reagan's day, originally released as a series of internal memos and later compiled in a book. Written in the bureaucratic language of university psychology, it was aimed to instruct square military types like the guy Cooper plays here, with their old boy attitude of knowing best because they've been around, on the difficulties of making sense and precisely how observation is perturbed by the viewer.
It was a boring read that zapped vital ideas of their seductiveness and another instance of how state agencies guiding the lives of millions often work from outmoded blueprints. You'll see the latest iteration of this in the Iraqi failure. But the real insight for me was that an all powerful agency tasked with making (and constructing) sense had to be instructed as recently as yesteryear on how it's a multitudinous thing. The original impetus for the paper incidentally was a high ranking KGB defector and the tangled narrative web of whether or not he was a double agent.
And all of this cuts for me at the heart of how we make sense as viewers in both life and the cinema. Our dogged insistence to make clear sense, to fit people into types and fashion stories in dramatically neat archs about what motivates them, papers over a fundamentally uncertain world where self will heave and elude in turbulent ways.
If you ever wondered how comedy at the hands of Akerman would look
like, it's right here. It's the gentle kind that might make the edges
of a smile curve upwards, not the kind that will elicit guffaws of
course. It goes without saying.
It is in fact a twist on the kind of movie she usually makes, about a woman who waits and frets as walls of self cave in, here rendered for amusement. A woman returns to her apartment to find a friend she had allowed to stay is still there. She wants him gone now so she can have peace of mind but she's too reticent to make a scene.
It's Chantal herself on screen playing a filmmaker working on a script, so another way for her to tell us about solitary life she probably knows well and bugs her. It has the tone of intimate quiet I like about her, the sense of diary and fecund waiting; a tone she shares with other women filmmakers I like like Varda and Kawase.
Unable to concentrate on her writing, she begins plotting on her typewriter about ways to avoid him, like how early to wake up to have finished breakfast before he comes in, writing the movie we watch in fact.
Another notion. She eavesdrops on a phonecall he makes and looks slightly piqued to realize it's to another girl they know. Is this all about her finding ways to not express feelings she would like to?
When he finally goes, the loneliness of the empty flat offers no solace, the opposite. We see her set up a camera that feeds back images of the building outside, the withering function of memory, of the self inhabiting images that anticipate instead of facing the real thing.
What we see is a self who continuously moves about a house, doing everything except moving out of its own way of expressing itself truly. The movement is funneled into a story about the self- inflicted woes of having to do so of course; it's a comedy about being fettered in this way.
But the point remains, one that links back to Jeanne Dielman. Is life kind of hopeless that way, vague, opaque, to be tacitly accepted as disheartening? It's where I part ways with her, although I accept her whole as a genuine person, a gentle soul speaking about real things. I think she only really managed to rise above the fog in Meetings of Anna.
Here she offers a small gesture. She writes again the morning after; okay. But how truly to move out of our own self when that's all that stands in the way of expressing ourselves? I'm reminded here of one of my most cherished Buddhist koans that speaks about the guest and the empty house.
Films are direct embodiments of what they are, we need only take an
honest look. Some viewers have held this one up as important debate
that brings attention to cruel double-binds of war, others have decried
it as one-sided propaganda. But what do the mechanics of how it has
been put together reveal?
We have viewers watching a movie that poses a grave moral conundrum unfold across screens, top military brass and politicians in various rooms as they contemplate a drone strike. If they decide to strike, innocents will die. If they don't, suicide bomb vests are being prepared inside the house, innocents will die soon after. We are viewers watching viewers watch a morality play about what to do.
It is a morality play; the particulars all simplified to make obvious the specific moral response. The setting has been simplified for the same narrative economy as every play, a jihadist hiding house surveyed from the sky. The innocents who stand to die are reduced down to a single little girl, who we have seen before as cute and loved by her parents. The desired reaction is reduced to the drone operator shedding tears over a magnified image of the little girl as he fights orders to kill.
What to make of all this, those of us who would rather confront ugly, complicated realities anyway? Would there be a movie at all if it was a gangly, ugly twentysomething or a middle- aged street vendor we had to mull over? Having bureaucrats obligingly swap opposing points of view, is there something to actually contemplate in all this?
There is no debate here. It's the kind of debate we would be having in the scenario with having to decide to push the red button that kills a hundred people or the one that kills two hundred. We have simply arrived too late, given the controls too late. We should be asking, how did it come down to where these two are our only options, or are they?
Look, film has the power to purify and bring to light, but where are you going to point? You have the opportunity to hover over the world, swoop from above to magnify and project back to screens all over the world. And it's a complete waste when there's nothing more to take back home beyond a mere somnolence, beyond a flimsy sense of 'humanity'. Spielberg has made a career out of this, choosing to find just those historic moments when the world is tearing itself up, often war, never trying to find the moral impasse where it lurks next to us and doesn't make itself obvious, in mundane reality, then lazily uses the world at its most cruel and senseless to bludgeon the viewer with how cruel it all is. It's a cynical thing.
The moments that test or betray humanity do not begin with having to decide what button to press. They begin on a mundane day with two people talking.
They committed to a simple choice here to create the funhouse in which
horror is going to play out for our delectation. The distraught victim
who is all alone in the remote cottage is a deaf mute. A killer is
skulking the perimeter and has all night to toy with her, prolonging
the thrill of watching and teasing through windows that mirrors our own
experience of having come to see. It shows viewers who slip in and out
of sight, one and then a second viewer vying for control of this
intermediate space, having to make imaginative choices.
It's a potent scenario, one that was long coming perhaps. They keep it fairly safe overall, trying to avoid off notes more than imaginatively extending, making me wish for an energy like Hooper's. But the house is spacious, affording funhouse games of anticipated surprise. Knowing no one will be coming and agony must be suffered in silence helps to envelop. They secured a woman with a strong presence to anchor emotional torment. The killer isn't the usual hulking crazy but a next door creep who came out to play and probably has a 9 to 5 life somewhere close.
The night as blank canvas where people trace impulsive paths with their
bodies, Chantal has twice before captivated me with something like
this. She is a gentle soul, gentle in the distance from which she
views, alert to the hum of transience. Once more she gives us yearning
in faint orbits.
It's pure listless summer night this one, one of the most atmospheric works I've found. Life for her is woven from breath and space, the moment that fleets before we can hold onto. She captures marvelous moments here; my favorites show a little girl rushing down the stairs and out the house as lovers embrace in the street, a young couple eloping in the night from a veranda door.
She begins to lose me when it's about no life in particular. Jeanne Dielman and Anna's Meetings were embodied in a woman who wonders and waits as she makes her way. Here we follow a dozen people through a hot summer night in the city. They come and go from places, wait for someone, pursue or leave each other in the street. Utterances are few, we infer from glances and bodies. Embrace or the urge to escape from embrace that has grown tired is the recurring pattern.
It's even more abstract and sensory than before. Purely on a moment- by-moment basis it's marvelous work. But sprawling as we do, not knowing these people as more than figures going to and from, it becomes choreographed performance, a study of form rather than journey that cuts through it. Most likely this was the specific intention. It brought to mind Pina Bausch and her dances of impulse painting itself with bodies. I see that she would make a film on Pina soon after.
It's a very tender balance anyway. You want - as Ozu did early on - to sift through the clamor of life to find those moments that lay bare the heart that minds, the body that is kept awake at nights, but I would rather have it reflected back in a way that tethers me to sleepless nights I've known, as a consciousness that inhabits a world that surrounds, which is how we know the world. It always comes back to having this one body, and to land in brief moments of different lives, the tethers grow lax and it moves to an omniscient view, a formal visit.
But this is Chantal choreographing sketches on life as all this merry-go-round, viewers who are interested in form will have a ball.
I saw this for a night of kicking back with spy movie machinations
where a narrator finds himself hapless in the face of secret agencies,
the overlap of manipulable stories controlled from afar. It's exactly
this; a narrator has just unveiled a story of intrigue, a newspaper
story that is expected to shake the system to its core, inspire self-
examination. She's willing to go to prison to uphold principles of
revealing truth, jeopardize family.
Those were the Bush years. The film disguises Iraq for Venezuela and 9/11 for an assassination attempt on the president as pretext for invasion, but the gist is the same; higher-ups lied to people, fabricated a story to odious ends abroad, willing to suppress freedom for security at home.
We're meant to see how the system isn't shook and blithely goes on, how every tool is used to break her in the name of security. She comes out on the other end having protected her source, upheld principle, but at huge personal cost to no change. It's meant to be a bleak look.
But it's all marred for my taste by the fact that it never rises above obvious movie-isms like having her husband strike an affair so we'll have added micro drama about choices. This isn't about what might happen of course, but what you decide did in the course of creating persons and giving rise to world. A marriage can be frayed without having it come down to he found someone else. It's the difference between plucking clean synthetic sounds on a computer and going out to to find them.
Yes, far-fetched, loose, bonkers, ridiculous and knows it for the most
part. It's the usual Bruckheimer exploding stuff colored by someone who
has known the Coens as simply those quirky guys. Malkovich threatens to
kill a bunny. A body falls from the sky, smack dab on normalcy.
But just about its best quality is how pliant.
Just as you might settle for an elaborate hostage situation, we're already wandering about where to land. Just as you might expect a protracted anxiety about the death toll of landing in Vegas, we're already blithely plowing through casinos. It always moves faster through its sets than the equivalent Die Hard movie would, which was the established staple of this type then.
Cage stops just short of channeling his Sailor/HI persona and goes the Bruckheimer route of action hero. But it's still Cage at the time when he was the best possible version of himself, feeling the most comfortable in his skin, cockiness that moves through the whole body.
I saw this in memory of Abbas Kiarostami who passed away the other day,
this Sufi seer of transient, evanescent life that circles back and goes
out again like fireflies in the night. I have felt him so close in
spirit; it was one of the saddest losses in recent years.
My relationship with him is rather simple and uncluttered, much like the films he makes. Shucks about form and whether the camera moves or not as far as I'm concerned. It's a tool to create stillness so that simple gestures will ring wide; but you can't still the mind of a viewer who has a million thoughts running in his head while watching, and you can't prevent a viewer who wants to remain still by moving the camera.
And I urge you as always to not settle for receiving films, his or anyone else's, as only cultural items that were made for us to intellectualize and keep up to date with norms of life in faraway places. It can make for interesting post-viewing discussion, but most of all, make sure to know things privately in your own self, allow them to have their cosmic import that speaks about the fact that here you are, living a life that will last a little while more.
A woman drives around Tehran, having conversations with people on the passenger's seat during a day and a night, this is the whole story here. We never leave the car. The camera simply flits between shots of the driver and passenger.
By way of insights, you will glean several here, about the place of women in Iran, expectations of being a housewife and how hard it is to obtain a divorce. Religion as focal point. You might consider that her unruly son who constantly berates her is promulgating larger social attitudes at play; a far more eyeopening way than showing us an angry mullah. You will get to decide how much of all this echoes your own society.
But now, how about we allow it to simply be about a woman who drives around life that wells up around her with anxieties?
A life that breaks down around the edges, as all lives do. A marriage that didn't work out and a son that pushes himself away from her. A man and woman who wanted different things from life and parted ways. You might appreciate here that the man allowed himself to be painted as drug user before the court as the only way for her to get the divorce.
Parallel, possible lives materialize in the seat next to her. A sister who is going through a breakup she has already gone through; how hopeless it is to cling to love that isn't there. Another woman whose marriage was broken off at the last moment. A prostitute who scoffs at the conventions of marriage. An old woman on her way to the mosque.
It ends with a son who is growing up to be a man and she has to softly let go into life. It isn't just a social film, but you'll have to allow yourself to watch from a softer distance. Kiarostami does it here, bestows the gift of wisdom. In the right ears, it will be a sutra teaching us impermanence and non-attachment.
How to begin to say anything? It's no small matter, provided you have
decided to not waste the time that has been given you, which is a great
gift, being there. And how to speak words that get to the crux without
reducing? This is all there is to it, though we cloud and clutter it
with all sorts of obligatory hierarchies and narratives, in both life
There are several things I move past here. The camera is a bit more garish than I'm drawn to, the strands of plot also. I am not instantly bowled over by any predilections of 'showing life' or confronting 'issues', life is a vast surge to set before you any aim of 'capturing'. The language is Bresson's essentially, punctured by loud interludes, neon bunny ears and disheveled shawls that belie sex that was just had.
But it gets to the crux in two important ways. The filmmaker could have plainly chosen to show us - like Spielberg would - a loving ordinary family forced to flee horrors. He makes it a point instead to show us a woman picking up an orphan girl among many in a camp and being paired with a stranger to create the needed family, given fake passports to be on their way to Europe. It's not because he thinks refugees are 'phony' that he does this, it seems rather out of desire to portray a reality that can be this complex and demands our response. We are better off facing a story like Dheepan's rather than lulling ourselves to sleep with platitudes that airbrush humanity for salon discussions.
Once in France, it becomes strangely watchable as we navigate the difficulties of having to make sense but any other film on the subject could trot out much the same 'fish out of water' scenario. We do see how, one warzone left behind, another greets them on their doorstep. We do see how the war surges up again in the man as response, life having that quality of conjuring itself up again. Dheepan's Buddhist neighbors would know this as karma.
But the other thing I like is that we have these people, engaged as characters in a fiction of husband and wife, pushing against limits to know truth. He gives us undecided people with urges, which is an accomplishment. Indeed the larger consciousness that moves the story is after Cassavetes, made more apparent with the shift ahead to London that finally plucks waking truth from the murk of roles and anxieties. Truth after all is something that you go out there and make happen , by going hard for her in this case.
This isn't a d/s film really as some say (more routinely known as bdsm
but I shorten it to essentials). To my mind, that would be about
someone who sheds control and truly gives herself over to another
person. What we have instead is someone controlling a fantasy around
her. This doesn't preclude it from being good of course but it's worth
making the distinction between fetish as piece of theater and vital
baring of soul.
But this reveals what the film is actually about and only disguised with erotica. It's about obsessive self, the self that tries to control life, that stands in the way of knowing intimacy. A petulant ego, as we go on to see, that only expects to be pleased and smothers the other, and the rituals, games, fictions it weaves that keep it from being there for the genuine exchange with another person that sex and love are both ways to manifest. In this way she explores neither herself nor her partner.
And I would go a step further. The big question in both loving intimacy with another person and making a film about it, or really any film that wants to probe the deepest recesses of self, is by what degrees to know and maintain distance, the distance as ambiguity that you honor by refusing to reduce. By what degrees to anticipate and remain open to spontaneity, lead or allow yourself to be led.
Here there are two reversals of control (over the viewing experience). One in who controls the exchange, and a second about the fictional nature of the exchange. Their effect however is that they leave me with a rather thin reality of petulant abuser and her exasperated enabler. What I have revealed of this world makes me feel that it's not worth staying for.
But knowing his previous work, this is a filmmaker who wants to see with an eye that delves into space to know the feel and cares primarily for what creates visual fabrics. I have him on a short list of talent with the potential to be commanding our attention in the near future.
A very remarkable flow here delves between the woman's thighs, delves through her sex to the box that contains the skeletal remains of what used to be love, and through it to a forlorn walk in the woods that culminates with another box that is the girl swallowing her with suffocating desire.
So he has good intuitions, an eye that reminds me of Europe in the 70s. I hope he grows and takes the leap from being a Juraj Herz or more intelligent Franco into transcendent dreamworlds (as opposed to symbolic). But if he rests here, part of me will be happy all the same, the part of me that favors ethereal wandering. We don't get much of it anymore.
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