Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bitter "Sweetie" Is Still a Beauty

Is the image at left an unconsoling one of a slender sapling utterly constrained by its barren environment of weary, eroded concrete and cropped, disembodied (non)caretaking? Or is it a hopeful, even a cheerfully irreverent portrait of the wee tree's dogged insistence on itself: a living implausibility in a world defined for better and for worse by cracked asymmetries, where every plash of color is a sensual delight and maybe even a spiritual victory—good news for the tree, surely, but also for whomever this is, gardening (if that's the right word) against all sartorial odds in her lavender skirt, her striped black stockings, her navy blue shoes, and some suggestion of a burgundy sleeve?

I have culled this emblematically vibrant and paradoxical frame from Sweetie, director Jane Campion's first and personal favorite of her six features. It says everything about my constant, giddy awe before this admittedly inconsistent but underratedly brilliant director that a movie this brave and astonishing—a confident, eccentric debut to put even Blood Simple to shame—still takes a Bronze Medal in my own inner Olympics to her gorgeously brazen apex of modern literary adaptations and to the best movie ever made.

Still, Sweetie is an absolute corker, genuinely unnerving and reliably hilarious, and also a movie that was practically invented for the Pause button, since each and every frame has been so wittily, punctiliously composed. Campion's estranging perspectives, her appetites for the alien bloodstreams inside domestic bodies and spaces, and her affinity for mannered performers and unlikely faces make her an especially glorious heir of photographers like Diane Arbus—although, much more than certain audacious but addled "imaginative portraits" I could name, Sweetie's exaggerated visual ideas and its proclivity for psychic binarisms writ garishly large actually dictate the look, rhythm, and structure of the film at all levels, instead of jittering inside an implausibly but increasingly commercial narrative structure.

For more of my enthusiasm about Sweetie—encompassing not just the film but the delicious and exquisitely detailed new DVD package from Criterion—I invite you over toward the website of Stop Smiling Magazine, which has generously farmed out another plum reviewing gig to me. Let this stand as partial proof that I am still writing somewhere even as I neglect this poor blog—which perhaps sees, in that trapped and stunted sapling, a pitiable image of its current condition. And by all means, rent or buy the DVD. I can attest first-hand that if you've only seen the catastrophically cropped and miserably color-timed VHS, you haven't really seen the film. Sweetie might unnerve, frustrate, or agitate you—indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't at times feel goaded and tested by this piece—but unlike virtually any movie that has opened on any American screen this year, it bespeaks a major artistic talent and it demands a complex critical reckoning. (Come back to the 5 & Dime, Janey C, Janey C!)

(Images © 1989 New South Wales Film Corporation, reproduced from DVDBeaver's glowing review of the DVD and from the Criterion Collection.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Nick, you probably don't care, but my blog addy has changed. Someone hacked it. Peh.

6:48 AM, November 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was the push I needed. Bless Criterion for the work that they do.

9:53 PM, November 21, 2006  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

God you guys are lucky buggars. This is an Australian movie by an Australian director with an Australian cast and crew and it hasn't even been released here. Yet y'all get a criterion edition.

I hate life and everything it stands for


6:51 AM, November 22, 2006  

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