Monday, June 26, 2006

Picked Flick #44: Shame

Across all of the arts, I think that the most urgent and sophisticated depiction of war is the one Bertolt Brecht constructs in his play Mother Courage and Her Children, in which the rumbling of military convoys and the cracks of artillery are mostly offstage echoes. The focalizing character is Anna Fierling, dubbed "Mother Courage" for both laudatory and facetious reasons, who strains to make a living for herself and her three bastard children while trudging through the muddy, scabbed grounds of the battlefields and surrounding towns, selling her second-hand wares to whomever, on whatever side, of whatever nationality or political persuasion, is willing to part with a buck, or a mark, or a krona, or a pair of boots, or whatever. Brecht helps us to understand war as a series of dark negotiations with one's own ethics, with one's own being, and with the competing ways of construing oneself as a communal figure: as a partner, a parent, a patriot, a pragmatist, a profiteer, a bystander, an objector. No one now living—at least no one paying any attention—can doubt the continuing relevance of this viewpoint, and the need for its proclamation: war, when it is happening, and it is almost always happening, is never "over there," it is always here, in its reverberations, its roots, its dollars and cents, even in the most isolationist refusals of war's reality.

Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film Shame presents itself in as un-Brechtian a style as it possibly could, but the intelligence and the inclusiveness with which it examines war as a social and human condition are very nearly on a par with Brecht's. In Bergman's Persona, made two years previously, Liv Ullmann reacts with mute shock and terror to televised images of martial atrocities in Southeast Asia, and to the horrifying conviction of a Buddhist monk setting fire to himself in protest of man's inhumanity. War provides a crucial context for the vicious psychological retrenchment that Persona subsequently explores, particularly via the Ullmann character, but Shame confronts the issue in a much more direct and thorough-going way. Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Ullmann and Max von Sydow) are married concert musicians who live out a rustic existence on a Scandinavian island—farming and raising chickens, struggling to get the radio and the truck engine to work, ferrying to the mainland for necessities and the occasional luxury indulgence. In Shame's first scene, Ullmann and von Sydow wake in their beds (not, crucially, the same bed), and as she rather brusquely dresses and washes her face, he forlornly recounts a dream of the previous evening. An undeniable chill, if not quite a hostility, exists between these people, though its relative severity will rise and fall through the first half of the film, sometimes warming to an optimistic intimacy, sometimes tumbling into a scary antagonism. Meanwhile, we learn quickly that whatever unnamed country of which the Rosenbergs are citizens, albeit quite secluded ones, has been rent for several years by civil war, whose armies might invade their own environs at any moment. In many films, even ones by Bergman, these dual narratives would serve as metaphors or reflections of each other: the on-and-off combat within the Rosenbergs' marriage and the literal war that, for now, is only visible in the processions of military trucks and the low-flying jets that occasionally pass overhead. The genius of Shame, though, rendered with stomach-turning immediacy and realism, is that we experience all of this as one narrative. The gnawing discontent between Eva and Jan is directly conditioned by the war; it is one of the thousands of tongues through which the war speaks. She expresses contempt for his tearful, paralyzed anxieties; he doesn't understand how she can listen to so much more of the radio coverage than he and yet reflect so much less sensitivity and fear in response; she wishes he would fix the fucking truck, partially so they will have a means of escape if marauding armies do appear, and partially because he's such a goddamned procrastinator in general. About a half-hour into Shame, with a speed, a potency, and a plausibility that are equally hard to bear, the martial conflict explodes at the Rosenbergs' very own door, frightening them to their cores, annihilating their privacy, and serving to draw them back together but also to make them scowl even more deeply at each others' shortcomings. Again, these personal clashes are not sidebars or collateral effects of the war: they are part of what war is. As circumstances deteriorate even further in Shame, so too do the relations between the Rosenbergs.

Along with how it pervades our personalities, slips under our very skins, the other vile and best-kept secret of war is its shapeshifting ability. Like a flammable liquid, it pours itself into any space or vessel, and is prone to ignite anywhere. The second half of Shame, now that the Rosenbergs realize how immersed they are in the crisis, shows how arbitrarily they are pawned between the opposing factions, how their friendships and their enmities become hopelessly confused, how in a very Brechtian fashion—if not, again, in a Brechtian idiom—war becomes a marketplace for terrible barters, including sexual ones, which give onto their own cycles of self-defeating revenge. If I'm making Shame sound like harrowing viewing, then I'm doing it justice; few films are so excoriating in their images or their trajectories. But there is nothing abstruse or reductive or inaccessible about it: it doesn't need manichean figures of good and evil like Platoon, or peekaboo movements in and out of the maelstrom like Saving Private Ryan, or even the ornate and remote meditative koans of The Thin Red Line. Ambitious and indispensable as Malick's movie is, its motivating quarry is the philosophical knot of war, whereas Shame draws the rutted map of war's psychology, in bold and grievous strokes recognizable to any audience, and liable to frighten and humble them all. Ullmann, exquisitely forceful and believable in her role, has exactly one Bergmanesque soliloquy about the states and layers of being and suffering, but even this builds to a ringing, legible, and haunting conclusion. Imagining the war-torn world as the collective nightmare of humanity, of a global conscience in a restive, inattentive sleep, she asks herself, "What happens when the person dreaming all of this and all of us awakes, and is ashamed?" (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1968 Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Supporting Actress Sundays: 1996

Hold tight on the countdown and other features while Nick picks his family over his flicks—both my mom and my brother have been visiting all weekend, and I'm enjoying every minute of their time before moving next week to a totally different time zone. I'll be back on regular duties come Monday, but in the meantime, I'm still piping in to the Supporting Actress Sundays feature chez StinkyLulu.

Our subject for scrutiny this month is the roster from 1996, a sensational Oscar vintage for actresses billed above and below the title. It's a shame that the very best supporting performance of them all went unnominated: I speak of Katrin Cartlidge's cold-fusion synthesis of frustration, bewilderment, compassion, and fury as Emily Watson's sister-in-law in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. Also regrettably MIA: Renée Zellweger making the case for romantic allegiance in Jerry Maguire, Kristin Scott Thomas barely tolerating her life as a governess in Angels & Insects, Claire Rushbrook as the daughter soured early by life in Secrets & Lies, and Elizabeth Peña as the lost object of love in Love Star. If AMPAS obeyed international release dates instead of just US debuts, we'd also have to make room for Nathalie Richard's frazzled, hot-tempered, and turned-on costume supervisor in Irma Vep (which I mini-reviewed here. Still, the fact that Oscar still found four tremendously deserving nominees without picking any of these contenders speaks very highly indeed about the quality of competition that year. (Sure, they also picked one lame duck, but don't worry—despite everyone's predictions, in a rare display of Oscar keeping faith with art, she lost.)

Image © 1996 PolyGram Entertainment/Gramercy Films.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Picked Flick #45: Frankie & Johnny

(This is the post I really should have contributed to Nathaniel's Pfeiffer Blog-a-thon last April, but it was just too soon in the countdown to rush it up. I meant every word I wrote at the time about my second-favorite Pfeiffer performance, but things only get better here...)

Michelle Pfeiffer may well be the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, and though she's rarely cited among the Streeps and and Moores, her talent is terrific and underrated: she's extremely attuned to her characters, capable both of mannerism and intuitive openness, and malleable to the divergent needs of a wide range of directors, genres, and projects. Despite all of this, however, she seems genuinely unsolicitous of attention. One almost gets the sense that she'd prefer to go unnoticed, and that it's both a blessing and a curse for her to be so skilled and well-rewarded in a profession that requires such extraordinary levels of scrutiny. She doesn't work that often, and when she does, she frequently opts for parts in movies that feel destined to escape critical or popular regard. Sometimes the parts aren't even that good, and you wonder, why is an actress of Pfeiffer's caliber and acclaim willing to break her reclusive patterns in order to star in Up Close and Personal or To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday? Why is it that even when she stars in a film with a built-in pedigree, like the Oprah-certified The Deep End of the Ocean or the Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres, the films don't ignite, despite how good she is in them? Is some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy at work? Are audiences so intimidated by her Garboesque appearance that they miss how proudly middlebrow her tastes run, how, at least on screen, her fundamental guardedness gives way to such emotional transparency? Even in upper-crusty endeavors like Dangerous Liaisons and The Age of Innocence, she telegraphs emotions, very subtly shading them but still making them big enough for large crowds to relate to—as opposed to, say, the more architectural acting styles of co-stars like Glenn Close and Daniel Day-Lewis. Even while traveling among totally different filmmaking idioms and adjusting her performmances accordingly, the uniting feature is that she always finds the identificatory points, situating her characters on a perfectly even keel with the audiences (especially, you feel, the women) who will be watching her, and stressing the common humanity that links Age's Countess Ellen Olenska, tainted by divorce and decorously spurned by the late 19th-century Manhattan aristocracy, with Ocean's Beth Cappadora, a wounded Wisconsin mom who likes milk with her pizza.

In my mind, this paradoxical blend of glamour and agoraphobia, these keynotes of humility and sadness that connect the women she plays, reach their apotheosis in Garry Marshall's Frankie & Johnny, exactly the sort of film that tends to zip straight from a quick release to a rental-store shelf. Regardless of how capably Pfeiffer modifies and recalculates her looks in almost every role, the rigid preconception that she was too beautiful for a part played onstage by Kathy Bates muffled any hope of her performance being taken very seriously. Having Marshall's name attached as director couldn't have helped, but for both the star and the director, the film still represents their peak accomplishment: her apex in a career of admirable successes, his solitary but impressive excuse for calling himself an artist. Frankie & Johnny delivers one of the most elusive chimeras in mainstream moviemaking: a romance that has the look, the rhythm, the one-liners, and even the premise of a comedy but is actually not a comedy. Its low notes and minor chords are just as foundational and just as constant as its bright spots and perky exchanges. Its resolution, however proudly optimistic, is also quite tentative. In sum, it's an adult vision of two complicated people converging, finding an ointment but not a cure for the ways in which they have been hurt. It's a romance where people remain throughout who they were in the first scenes. The script, adapted by Terrence McNally from his own play, expands the action and widens the cast, but it brooks remarkably few compromises with the testy, nervous, mercurial attraction between Frankie and Johnny: the way he comes on too strong, smitten but also a little arrogant; the way she refuses what seems to arrive too easily and unexpectedly at her feet; the way he romances her and pleads with her but occasionally betrays something ugly; the way she loosens up and has some fun testing the waters, but never quite stops building up walls, slamming doors, and changing her tune. Pfeiffer, owning the movie while the wonderful Pacino agreeably serves it back to her, is eminently believable at every instant. She's funny and tart at work, she relishes small victories like bowling a strike and winning at handball, she keeps scenes alive while acting behind a countertop or inside a cramped New York bathroom. In the terrific, mood-setting opening—the one moment in the movie when we leave the city—Frankie has the nervy, suspicious jitters while visiting her family in Altoona, PA, but her candor and clarity are beyond reproach when she confides to her mother at the kitchen sink, "Maybe I'm not the happiest person in the world, but that's not your fault." Like Pfeiffer herself, Frankie wants to be left alone, but she also wants to be found.

Garry Marshall doesn't quite prove in Frankie & Johnny that he's got a firm handle on the known world—meaning, for example, that struggling busboys who quit to be screenwriters still live in fantastic two-story loft apartments. But compared to the laundered, insane exuberance of Pretty Woman, with its constant denials of its lurid and reactionary content, Frankie & Johnny feels wise, unpushy, generously ceded to the actors and the writer, peppered with punchlines and gag shots but willing to let top-drawer cinematographer Dante Spinotti do his thing. Seemingly truncated plot threads, like Pacino's reconnection with his ex-wife and alienated children, actually gain strength from being peripheral: there's a credible, refreshing sense in the movie that Frankie and Johnny's courtship does not subsume every one of their private voyages and trials. Even the song score Marshall chooses is of an utterly different species than Pretty Woman's market-friendly avalanche of radio hits; it privileges the expected and shimmering Debussy, a funkily melancholic title track by Terence Trent D'Arby, and a song called "It Must Be Love" by Rickie Lee Jones that, like the movie, is either an uptempo ballad or a cautiously muted pop declaration, depending on how you look at it. The production design of the diner is excellent. The supporting notes supplied by a then-unknown Nathan Lane and the perennially underutilized Kate Nelligan are delectable. A faux-rose that Johnny whips up out of a dyed-red potato, a fork, and a celery stalk swipes the all-time movieland prize for whimsical, endearing diner chic, narrowly squeaking past Jeffrey Wright painting Claire Forlani's portrait in his pancake syrup in Basquiat. Frankie & Johnny is so unpretentious that its fine, layered, beautifully coaxed instincts at serving its script and its characters and its audience are easy to overlook. Don't. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1991 Paramount Pictures.

Labels: , , ,

Picked Flick #46: Titanic

When I first started teaching film, Titanic was invaluable to me, because every single student in my course had seen it, often more than once. As a result, for shared, shorthanded examples of camera angles, color filters, process shots, the comparative scope of a scene vs. a sequence, etc., and just as living proof that movies can unite people and endow us with common language and experience, Titanic was—in the treasure-hunting lingo of Brock Lovett & Co.—a trove, a jackpot. These days, it's hardly worth the trouble of invoking Titanic, because cracking the thick crust of derision or, at best, embarrassed affection is too arduous and digressive a task. Talk about hitting an iceberg: I recognize that even in 1997 and 1998, plenty of people were roundly unseduced by James Cameron's ballad of Jack and Rose. By now, though, Titanic seems to have sunk from a global preoccupation to an abashed recollection or a blacklisted memory.

Both the initial embrace of Titanic and its harsh disavowal, at least in the crowds where I hang out, betray a degree of emotionalism uncommon in the giddy world of movies—testament not only to how the film distinguishes itself from other epic-scale blockbusters by stoking emotion instead of cultivating detachment (it is, in this regard, the anti-Matrix) but to how the sinking of the Titanic itself, with all due respect to the people who died, resonates more in the history of affect than in any real chronicle of worldly consequence. Of course the event was triggered and conditioned by much vaster and more complicated forces—industrialism, social stratification, a booming market in luxuries, a new impetus behind global travel—but it's hard to feel as though any of these concepts operate in any truly complex way within the story of the Titanic, which unfolds as cleanly and simply as a parable. The poor paid for the luxuries of the rich, but death leveled them all. Idealism and ambition ran afoul of a major shoal of hubris. Many, many people died at once, and the foregoing circus of media jubilation around the ship's maiden voyage (as damp a phrase as anyone ever coined) made the deaths somehow more awful by making them so public—a bleak irony, too, since part of the horror of this story is the dark, freezing, lonely privacy in which the ship met its fate, so chillingly captured by that one extreme long shot of the distress flare, a pathetic white comma on the blank black sheet of the oceanic night. Titanic has an ideally sized plot for a movie, and for eliciting mass enthusiasm and identification, because despite the size of the ship and the scale of its infamy, the story's contours remain so manageable. In absolute contrast to something like the JFK assassination, the essential gist and ramification of the story can be quickly known, and since popular imagination has kept it afloat within an envelope of gently precautionary pathos, the tale offers a perfect porthole into broad fields and brushstrokes of feeling: romance, awe, sublimity, sentimentality, gravity, fear, manmade inequities as well as cosmic ones. Cameron's script isn't nearly as ambitious as those he wrote for the Terminator films or for the exemplary Aliens. Nonetheless, his extraordinary visual acumen and his keen regard for the audience's investments even in kinetic and logistic-heavy scenes prepares him perfectly as the director to animate Jack's doomed resourcefulness, Rose's coltish but galvanized resolve, the shipbuilder's avuncular regret, and all those "minor" moments of couples laid together in bed to their final rest, strangers gripping to handrails, waitstaff bolting through the corridors, deckhands crumbling in the face of the panicking crowd, "survivors" condemned to watch what they have just escaped. And he keeps all this in balance while presiding over a gargantuan, exacting, and detailed set, a mythic vision to hold alongside Griffith's Babylon.

Shame about the dialogue, and the high school lit-mag deployment of suicide as a plot device. I know, I know: that song. Many of the performances could stand some tweaking (more than that, in Billy Zane's case), even allowing that they've been evacuated of nuance so as to approximate the idioms of shipboard fictions, and also to purvey the script's distilled emotional states in as unobtrusive a way as possible. Too bad that, for all the justified finger-wagging at class oppression onboard, the world below decks is still something of a fratboy revue of gambols and beer steins, and the story still ends with a crafty and hardworking prole giving his life so that an aristocrat might live. If Titanic were truly building to an intellectual or editorial point, it would have a hard time persuading anybody that Jack's death offered the gorgeous, necessary precondition for Rose's rich, full life of riding ponies and turning pots. But palpably, these aren't the waters in which Titanic means to sail, at least not essentially. Every shot, every terrifically paced and judged cross-cut and interlude—increasingly so, in the film's formally heroic second half—squares the viewer right inside a romantic imagination of beauty and danger that movies almost never attempt anymore. The range of sentiments and the visual lucidity through which Titanic presents itself are tangible and recognizable to almost anyone of any age, and maybe that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it as an endorsement of the film's refusal to be cynical, or to be simply and flatly procedural like The Poseidon Adventure or Airport, or to wave the flag of its own virtuosity in as shrill and off-putting a way as James Cameron does in his public appearances. The movie knows when to stop showing us smashed hutches and looming rudders against the sky and to contract instead around moments like the one that always, always gets me: Rose, secured on a lowering lifeboat, realizing as Jack recedes in an extreme low-angle shot that the life she is saving for herself is not one she wants to save, and so she clambers back onto the dying animal of the Titanic and runs right back toward Jack. The most sophisticated dramaturgy in the world? No—but at least for me, it reverberates just as much as watching Dorothy walk outdoors into Technicolor or Luke discover that his archenemy is his father or a treasured, long-buried childhood toy melt away in a furnace. Call me crazy, but I'll go down with this ship every time. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1997 Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Picked Flicks #47: JFK & Nixon

People often ask me when my addiction to movies began, and I think I'd have to trace it to the years 1990-92, when I was growing up on an Army base in Hanau, Germany, where one of the most reliable and accessible entertainments for people my age was the single-screen movie theater. Movies arrived from America on a 3-6 month time delay, which at the time only added to their mysterious allure, since hype built for so long and under such different, more relaxed, and more reliable word-of-mouth conditions from the hypermediated onslaught of today's advertising. Living in a foreign country with only one English-speaking TV station (commercial-free to boot) further slowed the faucets of standard PR. These were also the years when my family bought our first VCR, so I could finally see both old and new movies of my own choosing, and with relatively little cultural noise dictating my opinions about what I was seeing. The only impediment on the theatrical side of things—a huge consideration then, though it seems now like another life—was having to finagle admission into R-rated movies. The fellow who worked the ticket counter didn't give me too much trouble despite disliking me, growling once that "you sure seem to have a lot of aunts and uncles" (read: strangers in line who agreed to shepherd me inside). The only two times I really had a problem hurdling over the R-rating, when the sleepy theater on cobblestoned Pioneer Kaserne suddenly sprang into high alert, were for Madonna: Truth or Dare, which outraged my ardent fandom and confirmed the evident social panic about uninhibited women, and for Oliver Stone's JFK. The censorious, highly disapproving vigilance that swirled around this movie was an altogether weirder case to me. American talking heads only ever supply "sex and violence" as the Scylla and Charybdis waiting to assail wayward youth, but neither appeared to be at issue in JFK. Granted, the theater staff did attempt to couch their quivering stinginess about Stone's images in terms of gore, of all things: no teenager, ostensibly, could possibly handle those wrenching replays and closeups of the Zapruder film, even though the predatory flayings in The Silence of the Lambs and the cheek-biting, family-stalking, capsizing menace of Max Cady in Cape Fear had just come and gone without similar caveats. Synthesizing the bizarrely fraught atmosphere at Pioneer with the cyclone of debate echoing from American media, I was perplexed as to what particular candy, laced with exactly what barbiturate or perverting element, JFK was offering to its endangered, corruptible audiences.

I can't remember now if my parents were unavailable or just uninterested in JFK, but my brother (good man!), hooked me up on the underground railroad with his high-school government teacher, and I was in. The movie totally blew my mind, as the phrase goes, but without just circumventing or opiating it. JFK's unimpeachable technical brio and its breathless dicing together of what feel like millions of film-fragments are enormous achievements in themselves. I can see where, as rhetorical devices, and even more as historicizing methods, they would leave much to be desired, but to cite an axiom that somehow always needs defending, JFK is not a legal brief but a movie—admittedly a movie with bullish designs on levering open the locked and sealed government case files, but also, quite patently, a "movie-movie" whose self-conscious flourishes of sound, music, montage, visual embellishment, changes in film stock, exaggerated characters, a highly caffeinated supporting cast, and pivotal arias of exposition and deduction (Laurie Metcalf's, Donald Sutherland's, and finally Kevin Costner's) all flagrantly announce the artifice and constructedness of what Stone has assembled. He and his crack team of collaborating artists devise stunning visual and audio analogues not just of paranoia but of outraged collective justice and of the massive, wormy coral reef of history, with its infinite chambers and pores, many of which never see the sunlight. Yes, it's a flawed film: Costner is too lightweight, Sissy Spacek's perspective as the lonely and agitated wife is almost nothing when it could have been something, and every time the film comes within a hundred feet of homosexuality, the performances, dialogue, and filmmaking all start stinking like wilted Southern verbena. Still, in a strange way, the lapses of JFK have always corroborated what is artful and almost frighteningly earnest about it: Stone works so fearlessly from the gut, with such unembarrassed fidelity to his sensibility, that the warts-and-all pursuit of ugly truths feels truly impassioned in this film. Not for Stone the decorous boilerplates of most courtroom dramas or tasteful liberal-historical tableaux, and almost single-handedly, JFK eliminated any need to make excuses for detritus like Ghosts of Mississippi, half-efforts like Mississippi Burning, or even decoy denunciations of invented crises, like the decidedly minor Guantánamo crisis in A Few Good Men. Stone already knows that both literally and figurally, we can't handle the truth—we can't touch it, and we can't accept what we can't touch—but he's able to use far more than foot-stomping speeches to register the point and its implications. In fact, conjoined with JFK's scalpel-edged critique of mainstream historical record is an equally sharp dismantling of our most naïve habits of image-reception. Not only does Stone recombine fresh and archival footage with the fervor of a mad geneticist, but he gamely stages illustrated versions of Jim Garrison's conjectures as well as the Warren Commission's, and of several gradations in between. Even when the script is one-sided, the film never is. JFK drives so many nails into the comortable conflation of filmed imagery with reality, is it any wonder that the film was so willfully misunderstood?

As with the Minghella duo a few rungs down on this list, JFK stimulated new appetites and ideas in my filmgoing which were even better rewarded by a subsequent effort from the same creative team. I've already posted a full review of Nixon, but if you've got seven hours free to watch the two films back to back, they remain fascinating companions. Whereas the coin of the realm in JFK is its vertiginous scrim of lightning-historical collage, asserted as an inherently greater force than the individuals scurrying around with their treacheries and truth crusades, Nixon remembers that history is still shaped by people, and that the unease and extremes of history cycle backward as the groundwater in our psyches and our private biographies. Again, some of Stone's touches are just too much: summits in China and in Texas and at J. Edgar Hoover's poolside still feel like trips to the fruitstand. Still, the broad, stentorian strokes in the dialogue and the visuals are plausibly illustrative of Nixon's mostly unsubtle grasp of his own life, and of what he was doing with everyone else's life. The ensemble of actors feel more like a united organism, rather than a series of showy walk-ons, and by allowing us more time and a slower pace to absorb the film's structure and its ironies, Nixon achieves what film biographies almost never do: it proposes a complex, counter-intuitive, and intricate new idea about an extremely well-known figure, portrayed against a detailed canvas of his intimates and his era. Nixon is almost certainly my favorite film about American politics, but it's also my favorite film of a Shakespearean tragedy. That Shakespeare didn't happen to write it is the result only of his living at the wrong time—a 400-year historical accident, though of course, in Stone's world, there are no historical accidents. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Images © 1991 Warner Bros. Pictures/Ixtlan Corporation/Regency Enterprises and © 1995 Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi Entertainment.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, June 19, 2006

Picked Flick #48: Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep crouches and teases from a funny, sexy, slinky space halfway between the chapbook and the manifesto. There is no doubt that Assayas, however offhanded his technique, means to shake up the French cinema. His characters can't stop bitching about the safe and stolid pictures that keep plodding around on Gallic screens, even as they join together to make a film of their own. Their shifty, shaky leader in this enterprise is René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a once-fêted director about whom everyone now seems especially dubious. René has somehow succeeded in wheedling Maggie Cheung into flying halfway around the world to France in order to star in his remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade's six-hour film serial of 1915-16. Unfortunately, René flummoxes himself and everyone else each time he tries to articulate why he is making this movie and what indeed he means for it to be. He has fiercely specific ideas about individual shots and scenes, and he forces his cast and crew through an intensely mannered, deliberately antiquarian project that none of them quite understands—and yet, when he watches the rushes at the end of a full day's work, he is apoplectic with disgust. More and more, Irma Vep insinuates that René isn't just a stern, eccentric taskmaster but a genuinely ill person. He vanishes from the set in the middle of the shoot, the victim of a rumored breakdown, at which point the studio recruits another director to steward the project.

That's about it for story in Irma Vep, but what bewitches about the movie are its crafty, on-the-fly methods of capturing the stop-and-go rhythms of filmmaking, to such an extent that the nascent film-within-a-film is itself almost an afterthought, albeit a beguilingly odd one. Reviews routinely called Irma Vep a satire, but it's never perfectly clear that René's remake of Les Vampires is such a folly after all, and nor is it obvious that Assayas is exaggerating all that much the swirling tumult in and around a set. Ironically, the more heatedly René disavows his labor, the more the cameraman, costumer, and cast members devise their own excited inklings about the film's artistic potential. Then again, most of these characters are so quicksanded in their own private neuroses that it's a minor miracle that any film is coming together at all. Markus (Bernard Nissile), René's cinematographer of 15 years, is infuriated by the director's wordless dismissals of each day's work. The producers seethe with bureaucratic stresses and with petty suspicions of their colleagues. Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu), the second-billed actress, is diplomatically supportive of René's ambitions, at least until she learns that she'll inherit the lead role if the new director, José Mirano (Lou Castel), succeeds in appropriating the film. Most memorably, Zoé (Nathalie Richard), the perpetually frazzled and temperamental wardrobe supervisor, keeps trying to suture the flimsy latex of Maggie Cheung's principal costume—a zippered catsuit modeled less on Feuillade's original character than on Michelle Pfeiffer's Batman Returns get-up—while simultaneously nursing a potent but anxious crush on Maggie herself. While all of these characters repeatedly explode at each other, Maggie Cheung is almost supernaturally gracious and flexible: a refreshing detour from actress-as-diva clichés, not to mention an extremely able performance in the always difficult role of oneself. In a sense, Irma Vep takes shape as a series of challenges to Maggie's equanimity, but she keeps her cool not just around this retinue of barking headcases but in the face, too, of Eric Gautier's restive handheld camera. Then again, Maggie may be harboring her own secrets: in the one sequence where she separates from the group, she appears to sneak into a nearby hotel room and burgle an expensive necklace, while the naked owner gabs on her telephone mere steps away. Given its uncertain placement within Irma Vep's montage, Maggie may simply be dreaming this trespass, but something about the sheer, risky gratuitousness of her theft resonates with René's artistic vision and, indeed, with Assayas' own: all three artists play elaborate, improvisatory games with exotic objects. For both René and Assayas, Maggie herself is this object—and if anything, she understands René better as his psyche further unravels and his fetishistic fascination with her becomes more overt. "That's desire," she says, with kind, even-keeled understanding at the end of his confessional rant, "and I think it's okay, because that's what we make movies with."

It's hard to write about Irma Vep and capture what is so special, playful, and exploratory about the movie. One major reason is that Assayas operates from such a jazzy visual sensibility that words are poor communicants for his signature fixations—for example, recurring shots of Maggie in her leather facemask, or the subtly sustained sequence shots in which Zoé's unrequited crush graduates from a subplot to a major assertion of the film. There's also the fact that, shaved of its last five minutes, Irma Vep would amount to a reasonably smart and enjoyably frisky sketch about art, recycling, and paranoia. Instead, Irma Vep unleashes a whopper of an open-ended finale: proof positive that you don't need a plot-twist, nor even much of a plot, to send your audience reeling out of the theater. As the crew of Les Vampires 2.0 gather to watch a rough assembly of footage by their hospitalized auteur, Assayas does more than call the bluff of René's skeptics. What he has crafted is so fearlessly, unspeakably strange that this modest, desultory movie suddenly quakes with the distilled force of aesthetic mystery. Forget Guy Maddin, or plastic bags blowing in the wind, or those blinding cityscapes at the ends of Happy Together and Adaptation. Though Assayas would reach further and score higher in demonlover (many of whose central motifs are already active here), Irma Vep bears the signature of a filmmaker who can stand far enough outside himself and his medium to see what is truly remarkable and also unsettling about both. He concocts, via a story about resurrecting old images, a tantalizing foretaste of the weird, hypnotic, possible futures of movies. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1996 Dacia Films/Canal+/Zeitgeist Films.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Graphic Enhancements

I recognize that only about three people alive care about this list I'm obsessively tapping out, but, inspired by Nathaniel and his Phormidable PhotoShop skills, I've added new banners to the Favorite Films pages—the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s—rather than using the same five thumbnails for every page. As this is the only substantial film writing I've done all year, I'd at least like it to look pretty.

Picked Flick #49: The Purple Rose of Cairo

"I've met a wonderful new man. He's fictional, but you can't have everything." So muses Mia Farrow's Cecilia in one of the most perfect and most perfectly played lines of dialogue Woody Allen ever wrote, a line that is equal parts honey and rue, just like the movie. Cecilia is a poor waitress, in at least three senses of the word: pitiable, without money, and wincingly bad at her job, lost as she often is in two kinds of daydreams. Some are about the movies she has recently seen, others about those soon to arrive in town. Even compared to the down-and-out customers and co-workers who surround her, even in contrast to her thuggish husband Monk (Danny Aiello), Cecilia's plight is especially dolorous, her happiness particularly moth-eaten. For some reason, this is how movies always portray inveterate filmgoers—who would haunt a moviehouse except someone in dire need of consolatory distraction?—but The Purple Rose of Cairo infuses real and enormous feeling into its characterization of Cecilia. She is constantly inspired by the movies to leave her husband and her current life and to imagine better versions of both, but then she is predictably rebuffed by how difficult it is to transform one's lot so utterly, and so she comes back. Her world is one of continual returns, and fairly early in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the misleading allure of popular fantasy seems almost as cruelly sad as the threadbare upholstery and the dim, amber-colored lighting in her apartment.

Did I mention, though, that The Purple Rose of Cairo is, at least in large part, a comedy? Alert as it is to the insuperable remoteness of reel life, it also concocts a dazzling, warm, and utterly joyful figure for the sheer pleasure of movies—the inexplicable way in which their silver flickers come to feel like a space you could happily inhabit, and the even more outrageous way in which cinephilia (which sounds a little like "Cecilia") starts to feel like a reciprocal adoration: if you love the movies enough, you start to sense or at least to dream that they love you right back. On her fourth or fifth trip to a matinée of The Purple Rose of Cairo, cheekily rendered as some mad Hollywood combo of Egyptian adventure, cabaret revue, and high-society romance, Cecilia is first noticed, then hailed, then magically wooed by the sweet-spirited movie character Tom Baxter, who literally walks off the screen to join her. The plaintive mood of small-scale tragedy has been so convincingly set by the preceding half-hour that the sudden rabbit-hole into comic farce is as unexpected as it is delightful. The rest of the movie, peppered with delicious dialogue and acted to perfection by the delicate Farrow and a buoyant Jeff Daniels, follows Cecilia's rapid courtship with Tom, then her run-in with Gil Bellows, the flustered actor who played Tom Baxter (and is also played by Jeff Daniels), and then her agitated decision about which of these figments—the matinée idol or his lovestruck alter ego—shall usher her over the new horizons of her life. The high spirits of the movie also encompass a zesty brothel interlude with Dianne Wiest and Glenne Headly; the Pirandellian fracas among the other Purple Rose characters whom Tom has abandoned; and a climactic montage, diced with expert period details and hammy innuendoes, in which Tom escorts Cecilia through the Hollywood dreamworld. All of these set-pieces and plotlines enliven the movie and invigorate the audience, but even they cannot compare to a short scene in a pawnshop, where Gil Bellows croons standards to Cecilia while she accompanies on ukulele, and the film leaps right into the stratosphere of movie bliss.

The Purple Rose of Cairo doesn't quite end how you expect, though it probably couldn't end any other way, and in wielding the masks of comedy and tragedy so deftly within the same film, it obviates any need for future Allen endeavors like Melinda and Melinda. Beyond the suppleness of the writing and the infectious, perfectly timed energies of the performers, The Purple Rose of Cairo works because the actual filmmaking emanates nostalgia and exuberance in such equal, doting measure. Cinematographer Gordon Willis, one of the truly indispensable figures in American movies, reanimates old-Hollywood idioms as perfectly as he did in Allen's Zelig, but with a sense of fun and depth that the one-joke premise of the earlier film didn't quite allow. For all of these reasons, Purple Rose situates you right in Cecilia's shoes: you recognize the limits and the artifice of movies, and you hope there is something more in your life to go home to, but nor would you want your life without the movies in it. The Purple Rose of Cairo was the first movie we saw in my high-school film studies course, where it was paired with Hitchcock's Vertigo, an even starker myth about the appeals and the dangers of gorgeous surfaces and emotional projections. In my mind, Purple Rose is also a natural companion to The Wizard of Oz, even though a reverse journey from color into black and white marks the threshold of fulfillment in this case, and the adage that "There's no place like home" echoes with even greater ambivalence. Beyond invoking connections to such undebated masterpieces, The Purple Rose of Cairo, in its admittedly tinier way, reveals itself with every viewing to be a masterpiece of its own, a witty and wise amalgam of innocence and experience. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1985 Orion Pictures.

Labels: , , ,

Picked Flicks #50: The English Patient & The Talented Mr. Ripley

Anthony Minghella's The English Patient is a waning moon of a movie, full of terrible torture and recurrent explosions, but more powerful still in depicting the low sputtering of a candle, the dimming of a flashlight, the erosion of love, the wearing away of borders. The film's fundamental attitude, notwithstanding its multiple cataclysms and its memorable howls of bereavement, is of poignant, downcast serenity. Proceeding along a gossamer thread of slow fades and lingering dissolves, The English Patient doesn't plumb the horrors of war—the deaths, the displacements—so much as it radiates a pearly, sometimes choking sadness that is the plausible aftermath of war, but also of love, and even of life itself: a mournful tranquility with which we, like the world, absorb our shocks and weather our storms. Experiences, the terrible as well as the transcendent, disperse and ripple outward into the mundane and unknown. They melt each other's boundaries, even when we're working hard to distinguish them. Beauty and memory and knowledge recede even as they are awakened or unearthed. The morbid eventfulness of the opening scenes, full of rasping soldiers and felled planes and exploding landmines, sets up only a few of the maze-like inroads into the movie's concatenated narrative; more importantly, these scenes rush to provide a context for that mood of bruised, wistful grief that defines Michael Ondaatje's novel as well as Minghella's adaptation. The heart of the film, then, lies not in major story points but in seemingly ornamental shots like that of Juliette Binoche trimming her hair in the window of an abandoned monastery, or another in which she uses piles of books to fill the gaps in a decimated staircase. Later—though actually much earlier, in the film's serpentine temporal logic—when Ralph Fiennes' leonine Count Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas' patrician adventurer Katharine Clifton are stranded inside a jeep during a terrible sandstorm, the emotional core of the scene is not the deep desperation of their circumstances, nor the lusty attraction blooming between them, nor even the inevitable chaos that will afflict their cohort once their affair begins. What that scene is really about is stealing a moment of unclaimed time, so that Almásy can tell this gilded beauty about the names of North African winds, and so she can hear him and be moved by what moves him. It is a rare, fleeting moment away from warmaking and mapmaking, away from worldly consequence, and it is precious for that very reason.

Granted, the film does not always benefit from Minghella's taste for romantic projections or his fervently literary emotionalism. His best visual and tonal ideas arise in that opalescent monastery where Binoche takes care of Fiennes, but not so his most rigorous concentration on plot or character; in fact, Minghella quite defies the emphases in Ondaatje's novel and inflates the Almásy-Katharine liaison into an erotic reckoning so potent it's almost embarrassing. Other problems emerge from the clash of impulses between aestheticism and political anatomy, and from Minghella's vague, uneven management of key characters like Willem Dafoe's Caravaggio and Naveen Andrews' Kip. But if all of this makes The English Patient a film of moments more than a sturdy whole, the moments are often glorious, and even as I confess my awareness of the movie's limitations, I maintain that its blend of bathos, adventure, contemplation, and cosmetic luster remains hard to beat. Kristin Scott Thomas fuses sexiness and intelligence in such layered, fascinating ways that she almost single-handedly validates the film's entire project of eroticizing ideas (or is it of intellectualizing eros?). Binoche finds an ideal film and character for her translucent style of acting; her early reading of the line "I don't know anything" tells you all you need to know about the character. The sound design is dense and often pristine, doing just as much as Stuart Craig's excellent production design and Ann Roth's typically subtle costumes to mask the film's low budget and, better, to foster its ambitions.

Three years later, Minghella returned with another prestige literary adaptation, and this time he had more money to throw around. But beyond being even more plushly outfitted than its predecessor, The Talented Mr. Ripley is in nearly every respect the more impressive, surprising film. Minghella tinkers with Highsmith even more than he did with Ondaatje, but rather than bend the material in more conventional directions as he did in The English Patient, he warps and weaves Ripley into an object of even more sidewinding, epicurean perversity than the novel is. Where The English Patient is suffused with death and immersed in the impermanence of things, The Talented Mr. Ripley has the guts as well as the chops to turn a story about killing into a parable of invention, of production, illuminating not just how Tom Ripley turns himself into someone else, but how each new imposture and each new murder actually creates something new—a new sense of who and what Tom is, of who and what he craves, of where he is going, of what he has been up to all along, of what the world must be, at essence, if Tom and his story are possible. Even though we, unlike any of the characters, know what Tom is doing and how he's managing it (often barely), we still end the film with an uncanny sense of several Toms existing, of not knowing where or how to fix him, of not quite believing there is only one Tom. And unlike The English Patient, the film takes perfect measure of every character and performance. Cate Blanchett's heartbreakingly gauche heiress and Jude Law's apollonian narcissist are the crowning glories, though Gwyneth Paltrow's seething anger at being so constantly abandoned, underestimated, and ungratified is a more impressive acting achievement than most reviewers admitted. I saw The English Patient four times in the theater, besotted by its conception and by the pure beauty of how it looked and sounded; Ripley, though, is the film I now dip into more often, and the one from which I learn more. Both films offer enticing signs that all is not lost in the territory of the upscale period drama, and that even within our illiterate age, ardent booklovers can both make and enjoy spectacular films. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Images © 1996 Miramax Films and © 1999 Paramount Pictures/Miramax Films.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, June 16, 2006

Picked Flicks: The Halfway Point

So we've made it through the first half of my Picked Flicks, the awkwardly named but fervently admired movies that I am proud to endorse as personal pets, even if none of them is quite Citizen Kane. Again, the Top 100 is about admiration, even though I do love almost all of those films; the Picked Flicks, from which the Top 100 titles are purposely excluded, are about love—even though, as you've hopefully gleaned from my write-ups, love often stands on the shoulders of some kind of admiration. It's all academic, and more than that, it's all extremely silly. But you know, it makes me feel good to write about good movies, which are often the hardest ones to characterize and the easiest ones to take for granted. I appreciate your following along—humoring me, really—thus far.

As we head into the top half, things will start to change a bit, mostly insofar as the films will skew even more contemporary. From #51 to #100, I included 14 films produced before I was born, which already isn't much, but on the top half of the countdown, there are only six (roughly, since it's hard to quantify the ties). It probably stands to reason that favorite movies are often formative ones, and for every movie-lover I know, these are often the movies that got us started on the theater-going habit, or which lit up before our eyes just as the addiction was really taking hold. In my case, this means that the 1990s play an inordinately strong role in what's coming. As much as I worship The Wind and Camille and The Seventh Seal and Mothlight, they aren't what I pop into the DVD or VCR for comfort, company, cheer, or obsessive revisitings....and those are the movies this list means to honor.

Coming up soon, then, in the next block of ten, give or take my constant rejiggering: two Best Picture winners (#46 and #50), two past presidents (#47), three punctures in the wall between real and reel life (including #42, #48, and #49), an impostor (also #50), a foreign war (#44), a short-order duo (#45), a sister doin' it for herself (#41), and a century-old monster that shows no signs of shrinking any time soon (#43). Any guesses, either for this bracket or for what's up top?


Picked Flick #51: Erin Brockovich

In a stunning demonstration of the Newtonian physics of movie stardom, Julia Roberts both loses and acquires her cool in Erin Brockovich, a movie that struts right past and, when necessary, stomps right over the hoariest clichés of Liberal Crusader Cinema. Any paean to this film must pay obeisance to Roberts' presence and performance in the title role, but what's most striking to me about her iconic turn is that "presence" and "performance" describe nearly opposite vectors of her work. Much more typically, a showcase for a megastar like Roberts aligns who she is (or who we perceive her to be) with what she does as a performer—and so, to take some easy examples, Garry Marshall practically keys the lighting in Pretty Woman to her generous, toothy supersmile, and he interpolates that lusty, cackling, blooper take of Richard Gere snapping the jewelry case on her fingers, such that her spontaneous whoop is indistinguishably Vivian's and Julia's whoop. Sleeping with the Enemy and The Pelican Brief play up the fragile tremulousness of, respectively, the newly anointed star who had best not put a foot wrong and the "comeback" queen trying hard to stay in the game while the shadowy forces of Hollywood PR try to paint her as a waning commodity. Erin Brockovich, though, like My Best Friend's Wedding and Notting Hill except better, amplifies our loyalty to this star while palpably, almost perversely calling attention to her most dubious and off-putting qualities. After instantly winning us over in the first sequence, pleading for a job that we're sure she won't get and probably doesn't want, Julia allows her high-voltage charisma to take care of itself ever afterward, choosing instead to emphasize how crabby and chirpily ruthless Erin can be, how pinched she is by her borderline bankruptcy and by snoopy co-workers. Her line readings are mercilessly good, especially when she's flaring up with ire or its cousin, self-pity: "I was Miss Wichita for God's sake... did I tell you that?" Pacific Gas & Electric arrives into the movie as yet another thing that annoys Erin, abrading her ever-abraded sense of fairness—barely any different from the lawyer's office that doesn't return her calls or the long-haired, engine-revving neighbor who has the temerity to be attracted to her. Erin is a hero who is also a pill; the script, limned with zingers and an unbeatably triumphalist character arc, gets the vinegar treatment from a wonderfully emboldened Roberts, who finally gets to use that haughty edge which marred some other performances as a productive tool for tempering and complicating this one. Steven Soderbergh, savvy to an extreme, captures Erin's righteous pluck as well as her almost free-floatingly disdainful attitude, and he captures these and other idiosyncrasies in shots that remain character-driven and respectful of her roving intelligence, even when the script starts to crank out the plot logic. Working both with and against the screenplay, both with and against Roberts' lavishly adored persona, Erin Brockovich activates an almost molecular field of humming electricity around this newly revealed actress. When Walter Benjamin wrote about "aura," Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich is what he had in mind.

And yet, it's as misleading as it is nearly unavoidable to consider Erin Brockovich a star vehicle, because Soderbergh's eye and his guiding hand are just as attentive, as creative, and as revelatory with regard to everything and everyone else in the film. Even the title is misleading: Erin Brockovich sounds like the story of one imposing woman, who, incidentally, could hardly have chosen a better name for herself: soothingly vowelly at the outset, and then, without a moment's notice, armored and aggressive with hard, intimidating consonants. But where, in that deceptively monolithic title, could we possibly sense the perfection with which the movie nails the entire Hinkly community, the weirdly telegraphed malice of overstuffed manila files, the dead air of an office where co-workers stolidly tolerate each other, and where new arrivals hang their dreams of individuality on the prospect of choosing their own code for the Xerox machine? How can we know that Albert Finney's Ed Masry will emerge just as roundedly and memorably as Julia's Erin, or that just when Erin is getting pretty easy to take at face value, Cherry Jones will pop up to slam a door in her face with ample justification, or Aaron Eckhart will withstand another caustic, patently defensive, and narcissistic put-down from this ersatz champion of the little people? "What about you, George?" Erin huffs, as though it simply hasn't occurred to her that other people need her, and that more than that, they need the parts of themselves that she has colonized along her admittedly valiant warpath toward social justice. Erin Brockovich isn't just about a woman who bucked the system but about the way that even a fully warranted outrage, hers or ours, often spills over into careless, omnivorous contempt. Like My Best Friend's Wedding, it doesn't quite end as you'd expect, but it's enormously freeing to the actress, the film, and even the entire genre that new gradations of "resolution," new compromises in tone and perspective, are finally permitted.

Like many critics, I trumpeted Traffic a little more loudly than I did Erin Brockovich when they so famously debuted in 2000. It isn't so much that Traffic has aged poorly as that I haven't had a single impulse to watch it again; my memory is of having a stout admiration for Soderbergh's ambitions, his seriousness, and his organizing skills, but of trying to muscle that admiration into an actual enthusiasm, which deflated before I could even write a proper review. (Truly, this was back when I really wrote reviews.) Erin Brockovich, meanwhile, remains one of the decade's sturdiest and most perennially rewarding entertainments: edited like a dream, paced like a racehorse with nothing to prove, accented with smart shifts in makeup and costume that far exceed the tarty first impressions, and lit with real acuity. Those zingers still zing. In several scenes where Erin gets what she wants with a flashy grin and a folksy demeanor—at the Water Board, in the Jensens' home—the film delivers much funnier and richer riffs on how Julia fabricates and manipulates her Julia-ness than Ocean's Twelve ever quite manages. Erin Brockovich gets me cheering for Erin every time, but also empathizing with the people wriggling under her stiletto pumps or cowering from her fury behind their tackboard cubicles. It also gets me thinking about why I am reacting this way, and about the value and the costs of Erin's fierceness, and why we're all so pissed off these days (enough so for Erin Brockovich to become a national folk hero), and about the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of being so constantly pissed. The movie, itself a little pissed, betrays its own lapses in tone and judgment, but you forgive them because like everything else in the film, they are interesting, entertaining, precautionary, and true. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 2000 Universal Pictures.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, June 15, 2006

House Beautiful

Eureka! Après une si longue absence, I at least have several good things to report, starting with the fact that my ♥ and I found a spectacular apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago:

As of early July, we shall deliciously inhabit the whole top floor of this beautiful 1920s building—the fourth floor, though the architects went the European way and designated it as the third. Light pours in from all four sides, and the rooms are decently sized, including a smallish east-facing sunroom in the back and our matching pair of bedroom-sized His 'n' His workrooms/offices. Also delicious, at least in those precious months of un-winter: an entire half-lot of greenspace along the southern face of the building, wrapping around to the back, and complete with lovely flower gardens and (get this!) our building's very own gazebo. To wit, the view from the sidewalk:

Here ceases the self-satisfied slavering over our new digs, but since you all knew why I was away, I thought I'd at least follow up and declare the Chicago sojourn a very successful trip—to say nothing of some delightful socializing time with good friends in the area and with extremely friendly and inspiring colleagues from my new job. On a whim that I'm very glad to have followed, I expanded the trip into a veritable two-week vacation, returning from Chicago in time to grab a Greyhound from NYC to my old haunts in Ithaca, NY, and celebrating with a dear friend on the very day she became Dr. Dear Friend, Ph.D. (Congrats again, KDS!) Lots of lovely moments were shared with some of my favorite people in the world, and as someone who rarely takes vacations in the fullest sense of the word, I feel rested and re-connected and hugely energized by these last two weeks away.

The only downside was that I missed all the fuzzy and fond community of you, my internet buddies! I hope you've all been enjoying the onset of summer as much as I have, and I'm looking forward to catching up on lost time—beginning very soon with #51 on the Picked Flicks countdown. Given the new banner at the top of the blog, it's hardly a mystery as to what's on the way...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Picked Flick #52: Sherman's March

Ross McElwee's Sherman's March may be the most convincingly lovelorn movie I have ever seen. When it was released on American screens in 1986, half a decade after McElwee lensed all of the footage, the movie would have made a terrific double-feature with Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray, a quiet, enormously compassionate, but wonderfully un-precious narrative about a lonely, attractive, but moody French thirtysomething who can't find anyone to go on vacation with her, doesn't feel comfortable in any of the places she goes, and very nearly resigns herself to a singleton's life. McElwee's memoir, filmed in the immediate aftermath of an unexpected breakup with his New York City girlfriend, offers a more homespun, masculine variation on similar themes, though McElwee's problem is not so much a dearth of companionship but a bewildering abundance of women who briefly "click" as lovers but who soon find reasons to part ways, except when McElwee beats them to it. Sherman's March, then, records his humorously hangdog sojourn through the American South: the director's home territory, densely populated with relatives, friends, and acquaintances who are trying to atomize his creeping dejection and couple him off with one Dixieland bachelorette or another. One of the first, funniest, and most revealing cuts in the movie carries us from McElwee's stark, empty loft apartment in Manhattan—a direct precursor of the one in When Harry Met Sally... where Billy Crystal passes the hours by throwing playing cards into a bowl—to a stationary shot in the lushly verdant North Carolina woods, where McElwee's extended family has convened an entire armada of eligible Southern magnolias, all under the flimsy pretext of a group picnic. As the women pass single-file by McElwee's camera, the military undertone of the shot is not accidental, and in fact it resonates with McElwee's other problem: when he was dumped, the nearly bankrupt filmmaker had just collected a grant to make a historical documentary about General William Tecumseh Sherman's slash-and-burn cavalcade through the South during the American Civil War. McElwee is hugely, genuinely intrigued by Sherman's story, but in the face of long-lost girlfriends who turn out to be recent divorcées, and synchronized-swimming belles of Virginia, and guitar-playing sirens, and rockabilly blues women, and lavishly impatient matchmakers, who has any headspace left for history? Sherman's March strives admirably—sometimes poignantly, often hilariously—to teach us some things about the notorious Yankee marauder, but much to our slightly pitying delight, the gravitational pull of McElwee's broken, optimistic heart is far and away the strongest influence on the film.

One reason why McElwee's film so bountifully transcends its limited and narcissistic premise, distinguishing itself from the mid-quality Woody Allen movies to which so many 1980s critics compared it, is that the women for whom McElwee pines emerge as layered, credible, unexpected figures in their own right—persuasive and interesting objects of love, rather than simple avatars of some generalized "womanhood" or empty mirrors in which the filmmaker sees mostly himself. Quite to the contrary, McElwee continually detects interests, expertises, energies, and even manifest foibles in these women that inspire him to be with them, and often to be like them. As much as his dashed hopes for romance provide the film's driving conceit, it is palpable throughout that he is hugely, creatively, and indeed hormonally inspired by his encounters with Mary, the middle-class fashion model for charity auctions; Pat, the deluded but indomitable aspiring starlet; Claudia, a kind and generous single mother with wispy premonitions of the Second Coming; Winnie, a doctoral candidate in linguistics living a hermit's life on a coastal island; Jackie, a onetime lover and now an anti-nuclear activist in South Carolina; Dedee, a singer and girl's-school teacher who gradually reveals her ardent Mormonism; Joyce, an affable rock 'n' roll frontwoman and sometime lounge singer in red leather pants; and Karen, an introspective lawyer who can't make up her mind about Ross or about her longtime on-again, off-again boyfriend Ken, who collects life-sized statues of hippos and rhinoceri. If Sherman's March evokes Allen, albeit in an utterly different regional milieu, it conjures only the best: Annie Hall, with a whole cornucopia of very different Annies. The same energizing, appealing radiance also emanates from women in the film who aren't McElwee's inamorata, such as his sister Dedee, who confides conspiratorially about her recent eye-left and "fanny-tuck" surgeries; and the vulgar, protean, uproarious Charleen, a former teacher and mentor who threatens to castrate Ross if he doesn't put down his camera when he's on dates, and who tries to school her errant pupil in the ardent vocabularies of love. Inside of eight minutes, she advises the nebbishy Ross to intone to the ill-at-ease singing Mormon, "'You're the only woman I've ever seen, I would die for you, I life for you, I breathe for you!' It doesn't matter that you don't know her! That's irrelevant!"

Charleen means what she says, just like she means it when she refers to the Civil War as "the late, great unpleasantness," and just as everyone in this offhandedly riotous movie means every crazy, dreamy, downcast, eggheaded, space-cadet thing that they say. Pat's spontaneous account of her ideal starring role is an early set-piece—it involves her curing cancer on a tropical island with her Tarzan lover, before traveling to Venus over a score of Stevie Wonder songs, getting macheted at the neck by her jealous paramour, and returning to Earth as a floating head-cum-prophet of love. The utterly credulous Claudia introduces Ross to an amateur Civil War enthusiast who gripes that the Confederacy has gotten a terrible rap, and that its only mistake was that "slavery should not be enforced, it should be a right—if you want to be a slave, be a slave; if you don't, fine." By no means are the women only presented as figures of fun, in part because Ross is no more clued-in than they are about the functioning world of grown-ups, in part because he is so sincerely and obviously attracted to them, and in part because a few of them, Winnie and Karen in particular, offer such shrewd and impressive retorts about Ross' own shortcomings and deceptively meek form of bullishness. Unlike a tedious exercise in detached, condescending picaresque like Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, or even a comparatively wiser film like Payne's Sideways, Sherman's March is lovingly humane even when it mopes, pokes fun, or leaps to connect the dots between bachelorhood, battlefield violence, and nuclear proliferation. On repeat viewings, the film's tone and perspective gets more complex, while the jokes stay funny, and the technique evinces more craft beneath what looks like a resolutely on-the-fly chronicle. The "characters," if we want to call them that, quickly doff their guises of stereotype and show us sparkling, surprisingly, sometimes silly facets of humanity leading, for better or worse, with its needy, greedy, smiling heart. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1986 First Run Features.

Labels: , ,