Backwards and Forwards: 2004
Film I Most Wonder If I Got Wrong: I'm not saying it was going to be easy: Gregg Araki was the New Queer Cinema director whose aesthetic I never attached to, even as I based a good deal of my professional life around studying his contemporaries; I have no idea why anyone hires Mary Lynn Rajskub, or why Elisabeth Shue has to look so Swankishly effortful everywhere outside of Leaving Las Vegas; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt has, for me, the same kind of premature "Great Actor" reputation and the same kind of on-screen self-regard that turns me off with Leonardo DiCaprio. But I have certainly cleared higher hurdles of taste or preconception before. All the same, Mysterious Skin just lost me, after the lyrical, Froot Loopy alien kitsch of the opening. Gordon-Levitt looked stiffly fixated on the surface of the character and the flaunting of bruised emotions, trying too hard to break type. I just never believed it, and the two strands of the story rarely held together for me. But I've been meaning to re-see the movie for a while, following the exhortations of several friends and a series of strong seminar and conference papers I've heard about Araki, his signatures, and this move in particular over the past two years. I was surprised at how put out I felt by Mysterious Skin at the time, and though I admittedly got cantankerous when it held on as a talking-piece for so long, my dislike for the film has never run deep. I was more annoyed than bored or repulsed, and that's the easiest kind of bad reaction to turn around.
Films I Might Have Underestimated: I saw My Summer of Love about a week after Mysterious Skin, and excepting my admiration for Natalie Press and some of the fairy-tale photography, I found this movie similarly guilty of working far too hard, and trying to provoke subtle responses with crude and transparent devices. Like Skin, it's held on to a very devoted set of fans, which to me is its own recommendation. Kim Ki-duk seems to have had an awfully abrupt rise and flameout as a target of Western critical adulation, though admittedly, some writers always felt he was an emperor with no clothes. 3-Iron is the film of his I would most like to re-test, because I recall being in rather a rush the first time I saw it, under pressure to return the rental or something, and it's impossible that a context like that would have worked in the favor of any film, much less one with those languorous, creepily dreamlike textures. Downfall I flat-out liked, but I have maintained such vivid recollections of the production design, the colors and the chill, the Ganz performance, and so many of the supporting players that I have wondered if it's even stronger than I gave it credit for. And no, this had nothing to do with all those YouTube lampoons, which I didn't know anything about until recently.
Films I Might Have Overestimated: I had the sensation of 2004 offering bounty after bounty, steadily, through the whole year. Even among summer blockbusters, I was surprised that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was so prankishly structured, with a sleek look and vital new characters like Sirius Black, and that Shrek 2 seemed somehow lighter, funnier, and less self-congratulatory than its predecessor. Still, I have never come anywhere close to either film again, and having disliked both franchises before these high points, I got right back to old habits. I ignored Shrek 3 and finally stopped bothering with the Harry Potter films after finding the fourth so tedious and the fifth so uninteresting. As it turns out, I just don't care about finding out what happens to those kids, in whatever medium, which has got me doubting whether Azkaban and Shrek 2 were really as grand as I felt initially, or if the cinemas of 2004 had just placed me into an exceptionally good mood. And since no commentary on Shrek is complete without a nod to Godard, I felt quite sure of adoring Notre musique in the late autumn, particularly but not only the opening movement in "Hell." But then I think: Native Americans in picturesque attire, stranded in a European city? Depressive girls played by wan actresses whom I immediately started confusing with each other? That vision of "Heaven"? Was the film really as strong as I thought? I've never tried to find out, but maybe you'll tell me.
One Way or Another, I Need Another Look at: At the end of this week, I'll get a look at Almodóvar's Broken Embraces, which has gotten even more of the "He's done all this before" reviews that he got in some quarters for Volver and before that for Bad Education. In other words, Bad Education and Volver have for many writers entered the canon of brilliant, distinctive Almodóvar to which the newest film is being unfavorably compared, despite their having been cold-shouldered in much the same way on their own initial release. If you're me, and with the sublime, fearless exception of Talk to Her, you have found all the Almodóvar films of the last decade to have more or less the same blend of inspiration, limitation, appeal, and self-recycling, then the stakes for each new debut are a little lower. So I probably feel about the same way as everybody else; I just mind less, or am less disappointed. But I would like to see Bad Education again, because there was a memorable nastiness, an overt snakiness to it that I haven't seen in his other movies after Live Flesh, and to me it's one of his most interesting sides.
Otherwise, Fatih Akin's Head On felt too histrionic to me at the time, and it might still, but I never forgot how striking the soundtrack and mix were, and how violent the colors and the performances, and I'd like another look-see, even if I cannot stand the excesses. Keane really tested my patience, but I realize even more in retrospect how much I appreciated the film's own bullishness about forcing an extended encounter with such a discomfiting character, and it's the most I've liked Amy Ryan or Abigail Breslin to date. Is the total recut by Steven Soderbergh, fascinatingly included on the DVD, better or worse or about the same? As for Kings and Queen I liked it quite a lot on DVD, on a laptop, but after sensing how grand A Christmas Tale, my first in-cinema Desplechin, sounded and felt on a huge screen, I might be more sensitive to the kind of force Kings and Queen probably attains when it looks as huge, physically, as its director's imagination and his restless spirit obviously are. Or, it might turn out to be colossally over-conceived and fussy and more than a little disorganized, which is my dawning worry about Desplechin's style, even before each film is even over, despite how euphorically I respond to them up to their midpoints.
Best Cases for Trying Again: Teaching can be the best reason to force a re-encounter with a text that you remember fondly or provocatively enough to want to show it to a class, but whose mysteries and difficulties you need to resolve for yourself, at least a little bit, before you try to mentor anyone else through them. The results were stellar with both Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl, which is just as tasty as can be once you've let go of the need for total, immediate grasp of character relationships, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, with its utter reversal of personality and aesthetic halfway through. I had expected both films to be productive training grounds for new ways of looking and listening, and useful as intellectual challenges for my students and for me. Quite to my surprise, though, oth Holy Girl and Malady unfurled as remarkably direct emotional experiences. I couldn't have been happier, even if my students were rather more split!
Sad Case Against Trying Again: I tried something similar with Sally Potter's Yes, which unlike the Martel or the Apichatpong I had found sorely disappointing on first impression. The all-pentameter screenplay, the astringent explorations of public and private spaces, and the luminous presence of Joan Allen all had me expecting a better experience the second time 'round, but the project never recovers from its crushing atmosphere of affectation, and the film embodies nearly as many fuzzy, Orientalizing perceptions and dubious fantasies as it promises to dissect.
Performances I'm Most Eager to Revisit: For reasons I have already described, Sean Penn is unmissable in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but let's hear it for Jack Thompson, too, who is the single least intimidated scene-partner that Penn has enjoyed in his last 10 years of screen acting, give or take Josh Brolin in Milk. All the living-legend discourse around Jeff Bridges these days, however strategically whipped up for his Crazy Heart campaign, has nonetheless given me a hankering to revisit The Door in the Floor, no matter how cranky the movie made me on first viewing. And while you're perusing that joint review, I'll go ahead and offer that Helen Mirren's work in The Clearing remains my favorite of her performances in the 00s. Jamie Foxx is an actor I've been tempted to write off until his surprisingly precise and evocative work in The Soloist; it's time to look back at Collateral and Breakin' All the Rules (Ray was my least favorite of his '04 turns) and remember what I found so exciting about him at the time. His namesake Jamie Bell hit an interesting early-career peak the same year in David Gordon Green's Undertow, and I learned a new name from Down to the Bone that I expect to be repeating and retyping with pleasure all through the next decade: Vera Farmiga.
Top Ten Films Still to Catch from 2004:
1. The Intruder (France), dir. Claire Denis, with Michel Subor
2. Moolaadé (Senegal), dir. Ousmane Sembene, with Fatoumata Coulibaly
3. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (USA), dir. Joe Berlinger
4. Exils (France), dir. Tony Gatlif, with Romain Duris, Lubna Azabal
5. Innocence (Belgium), dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, with Zoé Auclair
6. Or (My Treasure) (Israel), dir. Keren Yedaya, with Ronit Elkabetz
7. A Hole in My Heart (Sweden), dir. Lukas Moodysson
8. The Lizard (Iran), dir. Kamal Tabrizi, a smash comedy
9. Red Lights (France), dir. Cédric Kahn, with Carole Bouquet
10. Mr. 3000 (USA), dir. Charles Stone III, with Bernie Mac
Runners-up: The Chinese remake of A Letter from an Unknown Woman; Raymond Depardon's documentary 10th District Court; Ondi Timoner's music doc DiG!; the B-thriller Cellular; Kiwi drama In My Father's Den; The World, because I've been giving Jia the cold shoulder all decade; Somersault, with bright stars Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington; Wild Side, Sébastian Lifshitz's follow-up to Come Undone; Mean Creek, where the kids are definitely not all right; Lebanon-set drama In the Battlefields; Hong Sang-soo's Woman Is the Future of Man; Tim-endorsed horse-racing doc The Last Victory; and Spike Lee's reputedly (ob)noxious She Hate Me. Extra credit if I can come up with a copy of Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death.
Labels: BwdFwd 00s