Heaven Knows What – Ben and Joshua Safdie (2015)

There is a school of art that celebrates the “poetry of the streets,” a mode which seeks to portray life lived at its most bare, contingent, and unmediated level. A lot of actual poetry falls into this genre, including much work by the Beats, who found inspiration in the low and, melding the lives and language of the down and out with the improvisatory ways of jazz, did indeed transform seeming dross into gold. Hubert Selby Jr. did similarly with his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, a masterpiece of point of view and compassion that at the same time pulls no punches (and indeed still has the power to shock). Yes, there are many high points in this mostly 20th century school of art, but, I would aver, fewer cinematic than literary ones. The key here is transformation, and cinema can be very lazy in this department. Further, capturing the grit, grime, and vérité reality of life on the bum can become an end in itself, as if a lack of filter equals truth, and truth equals poetics. As the ability to make movies has increased, due to the video revolution, this genre has multiplied. The godfather of the contemporary arm of this subject is one Harmony Korine, whose Gummo almost single-handedly melded trailer trash stylings with pretentious wanna-be fine art. His films since then, for better or worse, have trafficked in meaningful meaninglessness (and suffered in proportion to their intended “beauty.” That is, Julien Donkey-Boy is awful, while Trash Humpers is actually pretty interesting). From his root stock, we can trace a line to Troma’s Giuseppe Andrews, whose massive filmography, including titles such as Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town, in which he also stars, documents the denizens of a trailer park in which Andrews also lives. Like the films of John Waters, who similarly celebrated “trash” living, such works bend the line between acting and life, and the films often make use of “real people” as actors, stock companies who live the art they create together. Whereas the films of Waters, although verging into camp (I would actually call them parodies of camp), create a full and verdant universe of expression by way of parody and appropriation, these newer films take up his mantle of outrageousness but wear it with “high art” style. Their master is actually Cassavetes, who tried to create a mirror of reality through improvisation and hand-held camerawork (itself drawing from the direct cinema documentary and avant-garde traditions of the earlier 1960s), and their approach to actors and acting is influenced by Herzog. Which is to say that, somewhere in the space, vast or small though it may be (as you judge it), between Harmony Korine and Troma, lies the film before us.

The story, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. The main character is Harley (Arielle Holmes), a pretty young homeless woman who happens to be in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a freckled seeming-psychotic asshole her own age. Both are drug addicts, and it appears Harley sometimes prostitutes herself to obtain her fix. As the film begins, Harley and Ilya have just had a falling out over something – most likely her having recently sold herself, but it’s hard to tell, as we never get a firm sense if Ilya has a right to his outrageous attitude, or if he’s just mental. At any rate, Harley, to prove her love, offers to slit her wrists and kill herself. Ilya eggs her on, calling her bluff again and again, until she finally does it. “Thankfully,” she lives, and after getting out of the hospital, takes up with a friend (and nemesis of Ilya?) Mike (Buddy Duress), he of the glazed, dead eyes, slack expression, and limited vocabulary. Most of the film consists of them bumming around, trying to get a fix, meeting this or that person, screaming and yelling profanities, falling in and out of favor with each other, and so forth. Eventually Harley mends fences with Ilya, they have a brief rekindling of the mad loving, and decide to head to Florida together (why we never learn). Ilya bugs out on the bus, and demands to disembark in the middle of nowhere while Harley is sleeping. He returns to his freak cave, builds a fire, fixes, passes out, and then burns alive (his face melting, intentionally or not, like Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Harley, after waking up on the bus, also throws a fit and is let off, only to return to Mike and his cohort in the night cafe, at which point our story closes.

Does anything set this film apart? Its most obvious distinctive aspect is the score. The movie “features” music by space music pioneer Isao Tomita, and has an original score composed by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink (who also has a bit part mixing it up at the band shell). The music purposefully overpowers the image, and is very heavy and intense when used. In fact, the best part of the film in my regard is the credit sequence. It takes place in the psychiatric ward, after Harley has attempted suicide, and contains no dialogue; the lengthy sequence plays out as a dumb show with thundering electronics, and shows how the filmmakers, if they truly wanted to provoke and innovate, could have constructed something like a grunge electro-opera. Dialogue is unnecessary in this film anyway. The title sequence shows we can fully understand what is happening without it, and the mostly angry shouted profanities kill whatever interest and mood the casting and photography create. (Note that I am not against profanity; if you want to see the baroque masterpiece of this little genre, check out Steve Ballot’s insane The Bride of Frank, from 1996. The profanity in that film is very creative, and transports the viewer). The second distinctive aspect of the film is the cinematography by Sean Price Williams, the inventive force that made Listen Up Philip more than half of what it was (he has shot all of Alex Ross Perry’s features, as well as the early mumblecore Frownland). The photography is lovely – unfortunately, what this film needs is not loveliness, but style and a point of view. While one may dislike the filmic sensibilities of a Giuseppe Andrews, one must also admit that his weakness is also his strength, and that, no matter how aesthetically yucky or off-putting the results, the director has a style and vision that make the films memorable, and what they are. The Safdie’s, though, don’t have a style – aside from a muted, wintry saturation level that gives the film a cold, brittle feel, and the aforementioned electronic portensions. They simply want to make a serious low budget film that recalls the ’70s. While one may find Korine pretentious, and infuriating, he at least provokes a reaction; Heaven Knows What merely provokes boredom. Scene after scene of junkies yelling at each other, acting shitty, looking truculent, or nodding off, with nothing to express beyond the angry ur-screams of their profanity. The script is adapted from a novel written by Holmes, titled Mad Love in New York City (or something similar). Darling, if this is a portrait of mad love, then A&E and LMN have produced more surrealism than the 1930s ever did. Mad love demands enough intelligence, brute though it may be, to understand the conventions that one is discarding. The main characters of this film exhibit almost no self-awareness. The approach feels juvenile, and the overall impression is one of true pretension; it is art because it is “tough,” “real,” or “raw.” In truth, it is unformed, and the reality portrayed is not transformed by a vision that can elevate us, or transport us, to a more profound understanding. Much sound and fury, signifying… that it’s time to yell further improvised swears before nodding off.

One and a half stars out of five

 

Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

What does it mean to be a man? Maybe it means whatever the society one is born into says it means – gender is a cultural construction, and so being a man means acting in certain ways, taking up the proper attires, attitudes, and preconceptions of the age into which one is born, and wearing them so that, in the eyes of others, they fit. If one wanted to be blunter, or more essentialist, one might say that being a man simply means having some native power, and making use of it. For a large part of history, at least in the West, woman has been defined negatively, as the absence of such powers (enumerated as characteristics). To put a finer point on it, being a man means being the nexus of potential powers of which women are deprived: political, economic, legal, religious. Power, though, is a flow (thanks, Foucault), running in both directions, and one can argue, as one should, that women have always had power, and wielded it, if in ways discursive and liminal. (They were forced to be men through means other than biology). So let me be even more specific. Being a man has less to do, perhaps, with power than with desire. Men are those beings who, by dint of a position of privilege vis-a-vis power, are allowed to desire. Yes, there are better or worse desires, and yes, there are desires which may be forbidden, or at least heavily taxed by the social order, to keep the social corpus from disintegrating, but a man gets to espouse his desire. Which is another way of saying that man is that creature that has a right to self-creation, or self-definition, and when he exercises that right, for good or for ill, in a way sanctioned or not, nobody is surprised; indeed, everything is as it should be, as such a thing is “natural.” (Nature being that which hides in plain sight). But desire is also, and notoriously, unseemly. To want something else, even in the crudest form of seizure and hording, grabbing a hold and not letting go of “the goods,” admits a deficiency. To want is inherently feminine, as it admits to a preexisting lack, a need, a weakness. When the object of desire is something petty, money, or property, perhaps, the desirous individual may also be deemed petty, but at the same time, there is less danger to his propriety; when the object of desire is another person, however, the chasm can open quickly, and swallow up the individual, unmasking, for society and for the man, the charade on which power as essential manliness is founded. If to be a woman is to be not-man, then to be a man in the thrall of desire for a woman is to be… nothing. (Or rather, at the center of a vertiginous spiral. Hence Lacan et al). “Love” is what we call such a crossroads, the place of no place where bets are set, cards are revealed, and reality eventually steps unclad from its social proscriptions. In this way, love is the domain of woman, as it is the space of vulnerability, risk, and seeking an identity through relations rather than assertions. But all identity is relational, and we arrive at the realization that nobody knows what it means to be a man – all those norms, all that “power,” is indeed simply an empty signifier, and the social trappings of manliness an almost endlessly elaborated denial of a negation (man is the neuter, and is defined negatively against the reality of woman). Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, following in the hewn path of the material it is adapted from, asks what it means to be a man, what it means to desire, and what it means to love, and it does so by portraying a woman who desires to be a man while retaining her femininity.

The film concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman just starting out on a path of self-sufficiency. The opening is dream-like in the isolation of its characters; Bathsheba has just acquired a small farm near the property of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He is a sheep farmer, and has put himself into hock in an attempt to better his condition and make a way for himself. For the first quarter hour or so, these two are the only inhabitants of a lush primeval world. After knowing her for a seemingly short period of time, Gabriel proposes marriage – the act speaks less of presumption than it does of inexperience, and indeed it feels somewhat natural, given that we feel these two are a kind of natural pair, mirrored both in their isolation, and in their hard-scrabble natures, each possessing nothing besides education (hers learned, his lived). Bathsheba doesn’t exactly refuse, but she lets Gabriel know that she doesn’t want a husband; she, being a kind of mirror of him (or he her) is also looking to rise, or, at least, test herself against the world (a double test, as she doesn’t have the same social warrant he does). Before any of this can play out further, fate, in good Victorian fashion, intervenes, and Gabriel’s farm meets with disaster. He is forced to sell everything he has to cover his debts, and he sets out to rebuild his life by selling his labor. At the same time as he is brought low, she is lifted up – her uncle dies, leaving her the sole heir to his farm estate, and she steps into his shoes, vowing to make use of the opportunity destiny has provided to “astonish” everyone and prove herself the equal of a man. Gabriel, after a short period of wandering, happens onto her land, assists during an emergency (his metier), and is hired by her as shepherd, showing he is indeed her equal by remaining unperturbed at their reversal of fortune, and unashamed to be in the employ of a woman he once courted. Bathsheba works hard and makes use of her considerable mental and social abilities to make the farm a success, and in doing so, attracts the attention of the local most eligible bachelor, a successful and wealthy farmer named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). We sense he is constrained by social strictures in that, during early encounters, he steers clear of this powerful woman, paying her deference, but also treating her with some coldness. She responds by sending him, by way of sussing out his nature, a Valentine, and this causes him to warm to her considerably, although not in the way she might like. He proposes marriage, and she, not wanting to hurt him (feeling guilty that she has led him on with the Valentine), doesn’t say no; she asks for time to think. He takes this as having greater import than it does. All the while, Gabriel serves as her foil. At times, he is a protege (although really he is more experienced at farm work than she), at times, a confidant, her conscience, her master-at-arms. That is, they become, slowly, closer and greater friends, although the relationship of employee and master always takes precedence. While Bathsheba runs the farm, keeping both men on the slow burn, a new force emerges to be reckoned with: one Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a Sergeant in the Army who seemingly happens upon Bathsheba while trespassing her property one night. He stays on to work, she tries to dismiss him, given his rank in society, and he, stereotypically dashing and romantic, susses out she has not had any adventures in the realm of love (indeed, she’s never been kissed), and proceeds to give her some. She is momentarily swept off her feet, and after trysting with him in the city, the two return wed, to the consternation of most everyone (except the farmhands he proceeds to get drunk). She immediately sees that the match was rash and unwise, and the rest of the film is a working out of this triangle: Troy, the callous mistake who now has a purchase on her material wealth; Boldwood, the stable, sturdy, but overly traditional and older bachelor who could make her “problems” go away, but at the cost of her self-definition; and Oak, her twinned other, the match both recognize is “meant to be,” but who will not make a move on her for the same reasons she won’t on him.

I am far from a well-read individual when it comes to Thomas Hardy (I have not read the book this film is based on), but one thing I love about him is that his characters both fit into types and at the same time subvert them (or exceed them). So, it is not a surprise that while the woman in this film takes on the characteristics of a man of her era, so do the men contain aspects of the feminine that, in the end, marks this drama as a dance of full humans trying to work against circumstances that would reduce them. For instance, Boldwood is indeed a traditionalist, and his vision of a marriage with Bathsheba would be very much one of him providing for while possessing her, even as he understands this is not her nature (and would make her unhappy). At the same time, he is in most ways the woman in their relationship. We understand that his aloof nature early on is the result of being jilted by a past love, and of a resulting lack of confidence. He is shy, and thus Bathsheba, in taking the reigns and sending him the Valentine, fits into what he might hope (and fear), even as it works against what society expects of him. For her part, she regrets playing “the man,” and effectively mocking his past hurt, but instead of keeping in the role, breaking his heart (by giving him a firm no) and moving on, she gives him hope. And indeed, she does seem undecided; she is not fickle, but is trying to negotiate what she desires with what society expects, and is leaving open the space of possibility that society might be right (or at least might win out). In this sense, she, like a man, wants to have options. Unfortunately, this leads Boldwood to grow only more attached, and to love her, unrequitedly, not from afar, but from just next door. Troy is similarly a mix, but in the opposite sense. On the surface, he is the usual rogue/dastard/adventurer we expect, knee-jerk, from a young, good-looking, and callow Army officer of this period. He is a gambler, a drinker, and we learn that he sees in Bathsheba a source of funding (although this is not his only motivation). At the same time, his romanticism is not a ruse; he is the only male in the film who openly cries, and without shame. While he treats Bathsheba poorly, we know he can be decent, honorable, and, above all, steadfastly loyal, as we have knowledge of a prior relationship, a doomed love with a wasteling of low birth named Fanny (Juno Temple). He is part cad, part Byronic hero, and part heartbroken idealist. While he is the husband, and thus lord of the estate, Bathsheba remains the “man” in that she is the effective, level-headed, scrupulous and industrious striver, while he is a layabout. Oak, while seemingly the most straightforward of the characters, is indeed the most complicated, as he is somewhat protean. Early on, he has the chance of joining the Army (he is called out by the recruiter as an exceptional specimen), and could have given up farming to become “like” Troy (in stature, at least). He is also a striver, trustworthy, conscientious, and sober-minded, and we can picture him easily turning into a Boldwood (who courts him as a manager of his property, and as a confidant and friend). The difference, though, is that, like Bathsheba, he is not content to play along with social expectations – or rather, he sees beyond them, to something truer, deeper, and more permanent. Unlike his male counterparts, he is not tormented or vexed, even though he has a much tougher existence, materially, than they. He is comfortable being feminized, as he has been granted the “gift” of maleness by birth; he is confident, comfortable in his own skin, and strong because of this existential stance. Bathsheba is his twin in all but this way – she has had to earn her access to “manliness,” nothing she achieves is a given, or granted, so she lacks the ability to see through or beyond the masks of the other men. Well, this is not exactly fair – for her, the stakes are too high. One wrong move might finish her, whereas Oak is always already allowed to reinvent himself, to move on, and to rework his life again, to the best of his abilities. In the end, it is this similarity – the ability to see beyond the dictates of the age, and to realize the absurdity of the expectations placed upon them – that marks Gabriel and Bathsheba as a natural match. One of the reasons I love Hardy, and what makes him interesting, is that, for all his similar farsightedness, he ultimately posits that humans do have natural affinities, based on type and temperament. Like should go with like. Troy’s natural match is Fanny, Oak’s is Bathsheba. The real tragedy is that, for Boldwood, his natural match never materializes and so he, in a sense, martyrs himself so that Bathsheba will be free to make hers.

The film ultimately suggests that we are types and we are mixtures; we are male and female, and personality emerges in the struggle we each conduct, psychically and within, between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Vinterberg has not made a radical film by any means, but it is an impressive one in its astute observations of human nature. Like his equally impressive The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd seeks to investigate how identity is formed by social consensus, how identity feeds back into, and informs social consensus, and how the damage and pain that emerges from this process reveals truth. It is a truth without an answer, though, and thus it, like most of reality, lacks catharsis. This is not a criticism, as it marks the film as mature (and as art) in my mind. All the same, it explains why we feel strangely subdued at our happy ending. Like goes with like, and what we knew all along is reinforced – that Gabriel and Bathsheba, as best friends and partners, are meant to be. But there is also the nagging sense that we’d have preferred them to have been married at the first, back when they were still isolated, truly equal in their nascence. While their experiences make it more likely that this relationship will endure, compared to the unrealized one, all the same, there is something more remote and distanced about them now. They know the many ways life can go, and go wrong, as they have borne witness to it together; ultimate disaster is no longer out there somewhere, a lurking unknown. But cataclysm is a quickener, and perhaps it would have been better to have lived, together, without knowledge of any other way, in fear of loss and catastrophe, than to know that, come what may, one can always go on, and make a way, alone.

Four stars out of five

The Age of Adaline – Lee Toland Krieger (2015)

That’s right, I saw this movie. I have a heart, and like it to be exercised occasionally. If only The Age of Adaline had given it the workout I was hoping for! This is the story of a woman who is trapped in the nightmare of looking like Blake Lively. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Adaline, upon acheiveing maturity, marries a young engineer, gives birth to a little girl, and then is promptly laid low by the unexpected death of her husband, felled by an accident during the construction of the Golden Gate bridge. (The majority of the movie takes place in San Francisco). Making her way as a young single mother, things take a turn for the weird, if not worse, when her car, caught in a freak snowfall on the way to visit her parents’ cabin in the woods, veers off the road, and into an icy body of water (river? lake? I don’t recall). She effectively dies from hypothermia (not drowning?), or so we are told by a pseudo-scientific voice on the soundtrack, but is jolted back to life when her watery grave is struck by an even freaker bolt of lightning. This gets her heart going again, sends her crashing back into the airy reality all but merfolk are forced to exist within, and also compresses her RNA mitochondria (or something like that), giving her the freak trifecta and winning her eternal youth – stuck forever at age 29. We get a general sense via montage that life at 29 is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when your daughter starts to look like your sister, then your mother, then a very old Ellen Burstyn. Hassled by the Feds during the Red Scare for nothing more than looking damn good at 46, Adaline goes underground, changing her identity, and her locale, when needs be. This paranoia, goaded on, we suspect, more by existential issues than by fear of winding up vivisected in a government lab, or worse, as the last cover girl L’Oreal will ever require, causes her to become hermetic in order to avoid the allergen of intimacy. Hence, her windfall is squandered, and this lovely, old fashioned, and, by the present day, incredibly learned and accomplished lady has not had a date in half a century. There was one suitor who wormed his way in, back in the swinging ’60s, but he was jilted, left in the lurch on a park bench clutching his engagement ring, never to know why Adaline scorned the affections that she also sought out.

Cut to the present day, where Adaline, not looking a day over 29, duh, is working in the San Fran library, and in the company only of a dog whose lineage is as vintage and untouched as her own (sired, seemingly, by parthenogenesis). Friends with a blind pianist, she is invited along to a gig at a swanky hotel downtown on New Year’s Eve. It is here that the saga of love begins, as she is spied across a crowded room by Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a massively rich coder philanthropist gadabout, who helps himself to a meet cute in the elevator. He pursues her doggedly, and she, old fashioned as she is, rebuffs, refuses, and then, eventually, relents (being modern enough it turns out to hop into bed on date two). She tries to ditch him, claiming she is moving to Oregon (which she is, to be near her aged daughter), but his stalkerish ways eventually convince her, and she travels with him to meet his family. This is where the movie picks up what emotional content it has, for, in a turn of events either romantic or incredibly awkward and with a perverted lining, Ellis’s father is indeed her old ’60s jiltee, William (Harrison Ford). Now happily married with kids, one of whom Adaline enjoys having sex with, William nearly swallows his false teeth upon seeing this seeming revenant, and for a while at least buys into the argument that she’s really Adaline’s daughter (she goes by the name Jenny these days). A telltale scar gives away the secret, and Adaline/Jenny flees the happy home, despite William’s pleading that she not repeat history and leave Ellis an island. Luckily for everyone, Adaline encounters another freak snowstorm on her way out of the woods, winds up in a gully (although not submerged), and helped along again by cold weather and an EMT with a defibrillator, she is brought back not only to life, but into the stream of life, her mitochondria stretching out comfortably and giving a sigh after 70 tense years. Ellis and Adaline reunite in the hospital, she spills the beans about being forever young, and they live happily ever after – or for maybe 40 more years, as even more happily, Adaline discovers she is no longer a spring chicken and is, indeed, going gray.

I fully admit that was more glib than the film actually warrants, but everyone needs some fun. Truly, the film is not awful. The tone, I think, is supposed to be modern-day fairy tale, what with the gently intoning voice-over, continual coinkydinks and all. The problems are not major; there is simply little feeling to the proceedings, little weight. I blame the acting. Blake Lively is fine as Adaline – she is not deep, but she gets the job done, and the role asks her to be little more than a pretty face that is tormented by that fact. (Okay, more like somewhat depressed and sulky). Huisman is a bigger problem. He lacks charisma, and his line readings are stilted – both of them seem like they’re rushing through their dialogue, which undercuts whatever chance the script had of being affecting (it is literate and does not lack for some degree of intelligence). So the first part of the movie is, like Adaline, pretty and amusing for its surface charms – where else can we see “A trip down Market Street before the fire,” circa 1906, blown up to be the equal of Vin Diesel’s bicep? – but it is otherwise dull. We keep waiting for the emergence of, if not heat, then at least light, and begin to fear that all is vanity. That is, until the oldsters arrive on the scene. Harrison Ford does his best acting work in ages (not a high bar to meet, admittedly) as the non-pervy old man who desperately wants to spare his dull, muscly son the pain that he endured so many years ago. (Seeing him galumph through the forest, trying to catch up to Adaline, is indeed heartening). Ellen Burstyn also does admirable work, bringing true depth and believability to the awkward situation of looking like your own great-grandmother – the scene at the end, in the hospital, where she says, unbelieving, “He knows?” in response to Adaline’s revelation that Ellis has just been brought up to speed was indeed effective, raising a lump in my throat as it revealed the true weight, and cost, of forcibly kept secrets, even as blithe and loopy a one as this. Otherwise… eh. The fairy tale aspect has validity if we consider the plight of women trapped by a culture obsessed with youth and beauty at all costs, but this heft is undercut by the voice-over which, acceptable as a mood setter, albeit a nutty one, at the film’s opening, devolves into outright laughability in the finale (where it should have been cut). Not a good film, not a bad film, very few highs, no lows. One and a half lumps in the throat. I have nothing more to say – I can hardly believe I’ve gone this far.

Two and a half stars out of five

Timbuktu – Abderrahmane Sissako (2015)

Timbuktu is a gentle film that concerns itself with violence: physical force, but also the violence of surveillance, repression, and the negation that colonizers bring with them. By gentle, I do not mean that the film is lyrical (although it certainly has moments of poetry) nor that it avoids a protest against a very specific set of outrages; it has a politics, and indeed, was inspired by a desire to inform. What I mean is that the film itself is not an outraged representation, and does not wear its heart on its sleeve, or rather, wave its banner above its head. (Such one-dimensional communications are, in fact, reserved for the factions that the film is taking to task). Rather, like the small gazelle that it takes as its emblem, the film is quiet, graceful, nimble, yet deadly serious in its task, moving quickly and fully concentrated – concerned with getting somewhere, even if that somewhere cannot be specified as anything other than away, and taking the audience along with it.

The film is a portrayal of Timbuktu under sharia law, as dictated by a group of (mostly Arab) jihadis. Inspired by actual events in 2012, Sissako selected Timbuktu to serve as the center of the film for a variety of reasons. First, it was a city of tolerance, home to a heterogeneous mix of Christians and Muslims who had lived in peaceful proximity for centuries. It was also a storied center of learning, a trait which indeed supported and informed such tolerance. Beyond that, Sissako, a native of Mauritania, was raised in Mali, and was shocked by the depredations that befell the country at the hands of extremist Muslim invaders; specifically, it was the report of a young couple being stoned to death in 2012 because they were not married that catalyzed him. The film, then, serves to pluck the city from the obscurity it suffers in the West (where it is synonymous with the middle of nowhere) and to portray a sophisticated, cosmopolitan culture repressed by an invading force. We do eventually see this young couple, and their execution, but getting there is a journey through the gradual steps of control exerted by this “caring” other. Just as Western colonizers patronized African populations with the knowledge of “how to live correctly,” so too do the jihadis, and perhaps more insidiously as well, as the disputes are pitched at the level of doctrinal difference. For the Arab-led colonizers, the matter is one of following the law closely and consistently (although the lie of such an assertion is disclosed in several scenes), whereas for the moderate Muslims of Timbuktu, instruction on how to live correctly becomes a lesson in fear, suffering, and death.

The concept of legality is the real weapon wielded by the jihadis, who use it, along with the calm and rational performance of its application in courtrooms, to legitimize a regime which ultimately allows for nothing save what will replicate its own power and control. This is one of Sissako’s great contributions; he does not portray the jihadis as evil, or even particularly extreme individually. They are most often middle-aged men whose attitude is one of calm obedience, who would more often than not prefer to avoid the regrettable outcomes that their wills impose. The leaders appear intelligent, they remain calm and collected, sure they understand these wayward others – as do many who are convinced of their own piety and purpose. Thus as the film moves along, inexorably portraying the increasingly harsh outcomes for those who do not see why their normal, daily behaviors are suddenly criminal and they impious, we too move from feeling that perhaps these forces can be lived with and accommodated, to understanding that there is little recourse and no way out of the problem except flight, abandonment, or resignation. Early on, we have hope, as the local imam, venerable, truly pious, logical and kindly, convinces the jihadis of a few things: leaving the mosque during prayer, for instance, as well as leaving their weaponry outside. Later, though, in another scene of doctrinal disagreement, we begin to understand, along with him, that he is not dealing with other Muslims, in the sense that they share a worldview grounded in the same text. The invaders define terms differently, and what use are definitions anyway when, ultimately, one side is convinced of its righteousness because it wields the power of physical force and the will to use it? The moderates work from the text to a way of life – the invaders have already decided the way, and draw from the text to give their power a sheen of legitimacy.

This portrayal of life in the city, in which Timbuktu itself is the main character, is one half of the film. The other half deals with a Tuareg family that lives on the outskirts, managing a small herd of cattle. This half of the film gives us a more normative narrative arc to follow, as we move with the family from an ideal life that barely references the invaders to ultimate disaster (although the disaster, as a consequence of sharia, is only a by-product of the jihadis, as they do not directly interfere with the family’s daily life in any significant way). The father of this little household is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), nominally a shepherd of the cattle, but truly a musician and singer. He and his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), have a 12 year old daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). There is a young shepherd, Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), who is directly responsible for the cattle; I took him to be Kidane’s stepson, fathered by a previous husband of Satima’s. Other sources refer to him as simply the family’s young shepherd. One day while shepherding, the prized, pregnant cow, named GPS, gets caught up in a local fisherman’s nets while drinking, and the fisherman kills it. This leads Kidane to confront the fisherman with a small handgun. Part of the motivation for this confrontation is the atmosphere of mounting anger and humiliation brought about by the presence of the jihadis (although the fisherman is a local); I also felt that there was a psychological pressure on Kidane to live up to his predecessor, who Issan says was, in contrast, a very good herdsman. Satima tries to convince Kidane not to take the weapon, but he insists, and in explaining his reasoning, he disavows what Satima fears the most – that it will lead to the destruction of the family. Kidane confronts the fisherman, accidentally killing him, and thus, subject to sharia law, is sentenced to die, as he does not have the resources to pay the demanded 40 cattle of blood money required. The confusion over the family structure, while not paramount, does matter, as the psychologies at work within the family do dictate the outcome of the film, in which Satima makes the decision to intervene in Kidane’s execution, leaving the family fragmented and dispersed.

Sissako’s use of the “personal” story does an impressive, and effective, job of serving to illustrate how the repression brought by the invaders casts a wide net of consequences. It also serves as an allegory of the destruction of the “natural,” or native, modes of being, which are seamlessly intertwined with history, the landscape, and animal life. The movie is book-ended by shots of jihadis in a pickup truck imposing, rather than “doing,” violence. In the opening, we see them chasing the aforementioned small gazelle, shooting at it with automatic rifles, not to kill it, but to exhaust it. We then see them using ancient tribal figures and statuary for target practice. The ending repeats this configuration, but collapses the animal, the figurative, and the historical into those now being chased, the remnants of Kidane’s family; like the gazelle, they flee with no further thought, as any sense of continuity or the possible has been eliminated. They are now simply living fodder for target practice, an other that must necessarily be effaced to legitimize the acts of violence already committed. While we do not learn their ultimate fate – exhaustion and submission at best, destruction at worst – it does not matter, as it was preordained from the moment the intruders arrived. What appeared at the start of the film as a progression reveals itself to be what all totalitarian ideologies are – a predetermined destination disguising itself as a journey of discovery.

Four stars out of five

Still Alice – Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2015)

As I watched Still Alice, I thought it would be interesting to see the same script (or at least the same material) as directed by a woman – Claire Denis, perhaps, or Catherine Breillat, whose Abuse of Weakness came to mind. That was the tougher of the two films, the more nuanced, perhaps, and the more probing, but in the end, I found Still Alice more affecting. In some ways, the film is not far from a Lifetime made for TV movie (or at least a Lifetime movie before the network became obsessed with domestic violence); the travails of a successful career woman, and of her family, as she is forced to submit to her human frailty far too early. And yet, especially in the last half-hour or so, Still Alice rises above weepy melodrama (not that I have anything against weepy melodramas) to ask serious questions about the nature of identity, and the value of life if it is lived without the ability to self-reflect, or to inhabit the world meaningfully. That it rises above is in part due to the script, the simplicity of which allows it to usefully tighten and focus in the end, but more so because of the acting, which is truly the reason to see this film. Julianne Moore well deserved her Oscar win (although she should have won for many other roles too, especially what I still consider her finest hour, as Carol White in Todd Haynes career-best Safe), as she moves with amazing skill from eloquent and smooth star professor to terrified thousand yard stare to almost complete emptiness as Alice’s personality evacuates. It is not a one woman show, however. Alec Baldwin gives a much more nuanced and gentle turn than expected as her sympathetic and kind husband, and Kristen Stewart, who could be the weightiest actress of her generation if she is given the opportunities, inhabits her wanna-be actress daughter, a role that could have easily been one note, with an easy grace, moving from sulky tension to mature understanding and compassion very convincingly.

The film, if it isn’t already obvious, deals with a woman and the ramifications of a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s on both her life and her family’s. Alice is a celebrated linguist who teaches at Columbia; her husband, John, also teaches there, in the hard sciences. They have three grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth, the weakest link acting-wise) and Hunter (Tom Howland), who both also live in New York, and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the youngest, and family black sheep, who skipped college to move to L.A. and pursue her desire to act (the main source of tension with Mom). Alice begins to notice that certain things drop out of her memory and her experience; it is not simply forgetfulness, as she enters a kind of somatic panic when she loses her way on a jog around campus. After some testing by her neurologist (Stephen Kunken), it is discovered that she not only has early onset Alzheimer’s, but that it is of the genetic variety, making her children susceptible. Anna, who has been trying to conceive with her husband Charlie (Shane McRae), will get the disease; Hunter will not; Lydia prefers not to find out and does not get tested. The rest of the film follows Alice’s increasing, and fairly rapid, degeneration, as well as the impact on the lives of her family (foremost on her husband’s career). Lucid Alice leaves a testing system, accompanied by an instructional video, to direct afflicted Alice to commit suicide, via an overdose of sleeping pills, when she has reached the point of not being able to answer a series of basic questions. Afflicted Alice, accidentally stumbling across the video (the test itself long since forgotten), tries to follow through, but botches it and loses her chance. Eventually, John moves to Minnesota for a job at the Mayo Clinic, leaving Alice in the care of Lyida, who voluntarily returns from California to live with her mother. The film ends, affectingly and poetically, to my taste at least, with a shot of Lydia reading a passage from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America aloud, and then asking her mother what it means. After much effort, Alice manages to work out the word “love.” “Yes,” says Lydia, “it means love.”

What is so intelligent about the film, and what prevents it from being overly sentimental, is that, due to the focus and simplicity of the second half, double meanings abound, and we can see the hard questions answered from both sides. For instance, we fully understand Alice’s desire to commit suicide; not only is it a fundamental way to deal with the anguish of losing her identity and purpose, but it also saves herself, and her family, the pain of lingering on far, far beyond what a normal patient of the disease might endure. That said, when the “time comes,” we cannot be sure that it is time. Is she far enough gone? She is fairly debilitated, yet she has just managed to have a video chat with her daughter, alone in the house, her caretaker off for the day (a fact which dismays Lydia). She stumbles upon the video, but has not the judgement to make a choice; she is simply carrying out the commands of a friendly, helpful, and familiar face. We feel that either way it goes has merit, but in the end, fate intervenes, Alice fumbles the pill bottle, and just as the caretaker arrives on the scene. What is so lovely and tragic about the sequence is that it presents a gentle and uncomplicated argument for life – when she signs off from the video chat, and finds the video, Alice has just made toast and tea for herself, and those humble enjoyments, set aside for the new stimulus of the suicide pact with her past, are tragic. The argument for life boils down to tea and toast. She can still enjoy the buttered bread, and the warming heat of the tea, in a sensuous way; need there be more reason to live? Is personality, or identity, necessary to exist at that level? After all, the “purely animal” is good enough for animals. Later on, as she orders a Pinkberry with her husband at one of their final outings (Pinkberry being a favorite), she snuggles against him at the counter, gently rubbing her cheek on his thick, furry flannel collar. Again, this gesture of love and comfort redeems the sadness (and perhaps amplifies it) through the purely phenomenological. The last scene, where Lydia reads to her, also works similarly. On the one hand, there is nothing left of Alice as she was – she can barely speak, and we can’t know if she understands her situation or recognizes her surroundings. When Lydia asks what the passage she read means, Alice could be responding with some level of cognition. Or, much more likely, she is simply responding to a loving face, looking upon her with kindness; she is responding to presence. Whether she understands or not, or can have a life with “meaning,” the fact that others care for her, and that she can respond at all, in the moment, to such care, makes her existence worthwhile. Lydia fully recognizes this, as her response mirrors the facticity of the moment while leaving open the question of what is understood – love is the answer in either case. Yes, the movie has problematic elements. Especially early on, the directors use a very shallow depth of field to mirror, in a too literal way, the haziness of Alice’s memory, the loss of focus; it is an overly obvious metaphor, and furthermore, aesthetically it grates, in some scenes making the actors pop out of their surroundings in a very distracting way. It is also the case that this story, like many we get from Hollywood, presents us with a best-case scenario, with the deck fully stacked in Alice’s favor: successful, affluent, and surrounded by a loving family, she is hardly the usual Alzheimer’s patient. The positive of such a portrayal is that it perhaps allows the audience to relate, and staves off the distance or denial that can easily take hold in a more “realistic” scenario (“that’s not me”). All the same, the negatives are abundant, and we wind up close to glamorizing a very unglamorous condition. Regardless, though, the gentleness and honesty with which the movie asks the question, “Is this life worth living?” and the nuanced and thoughtful, if unsurprising, answer of yes that it provides, sets it apart. The enjoyment of the senses, the presence of another, even stripped of understanding, is perhaps a rebuke to the idea that life without identity is the equivalent of a death without dignity.

Three and a half stars out of five

Two by Nils Malmros: Pain of Love (1992) and Sorrow and Joy (2013)

Danish director Nils Malmros is little known in this country, or outside of his native Denmark; within that country he is quite highly regarded. Lincoln Center brought him stateside as part of their recently ongoing Film Comment Selects series, showing most if not all of his films. I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of his work, but I had seen 1983’s Beauty and the Beast, a masterly film about a single father coming to terms with his adolescent daughter’s sexuality and desire for freedom. Based on my love of that film, I saw Pain of Love and Sorrow and Joy in back-to-back screenings, with Malmros himself present for a Q&A. The result was surprising, in that I emerged not loving these other works, but with a fairly critical take. Because the films were presented together, and as they relate to “true” events within the director’s life, which he expounded upon during the Q&A, I will evaluate the films together as well.

There is no point in beating around the bush; both films deal with a traumatic event in Malmros’s personal life. In 1984, his wife had a psychotic break during which she killed their infant daughter. She had struggled with mental problems her whole life, and has since recovered, at least enough to live normally within society. Malmros was at pains during the Q&A to make clear the extent of his wife’s problems, and the fact that he does not blame her, to the point that it felt like an apologia, or that he is perhaps defensive about the topic (in his gentle, Scandinavian way of course). The films, however, are the true defense of these events, and what makes them difficult films is that in both the director seems to shy away from a thoroughgoing evaluation of his own role in their unfolding. Does he have a role in them? It would be hard to say if one saw only Pain of Love without Sorrow and Joy, or vice versa, but the director claimed, during the Q&A, that the former film portrays the events “from his wife’s point of view,” while the later film portrays them from his (and, we are given to understand, from an objective point of view as well).

In Pain of Love, Malmros addresses the events discursively, sublimating them and transforming them through the creative process. The film deals, as many of Malmros’s films do, with adolescent desire and coming of age; in this case, it is the story of his wife’s life as a late teenager and young adult, just before she met him. Kirsten (Anne Louise Hassing) is a bubbly and buoyant teen, well-liked and with a boyfriend she adores and dotes on. All the same, something is not quite right within her world, signaled by her overly eager demeanor and broad to the point of breaking smile. (We later understand, only obliquely, that she is manifesting the manic side of manic-depression). When her boyfriend proposes marriage before they head away to college, she puts him off, and proceeds to become smitten with one of the young teachers in her high school. This being the 70s, and Scandinavia, they drink together and kiss a little, but the teacher breaks it off before it can progress beyond this point. Kirsten goes off to college, but at this point, things begin falling apart. Originally wanting to be a doctor, she fails her exams, not through any inherent lack of intelligence, but because she is distracted, and seems taken aback when her natural charm is not enough to pull her through the end-of-semester orals. Her old teacher crush Soren (Soren Ostergaard) reenters the scene, and helps her pass her exams (just barely). Perhaps hoping for a renewal of their romance, Kirsten is distraught after Soren marries another teacher. Kirsten becomes pregnant after sleeping with an older man she meets in a bar (who appears to be a film director or well-known creative type, but I am unable to verify this). This drives her depression farther forward, and she becomes gloomy and detached, fixated on Soren and assured of her own failure (even though by now she works as a teacher). Eventually, she tries to commit suicide (failing where her maternal grandfather succeeded). She recovers, but remains depressed and set on Soren as the solution to her problems. Eventually, his marriage to the other teacher falls apart, and slowly he reenters her orbit, eventually marrying her. She moves in with him, and he is a father to her child, but the distance is never breached, and the film ends with Kirsten, unlike in real life, killing herself and leaving the child behind.

With Sorrow and Joy, enough time has passed that the director feels he can tell the story of the tragedy directly, from “his point of view.” In this telling, we begin with the sad event, recounted from filmmaker Johannes’s (Jakob Cedergren) perspective, as he arrives home one evening after giving a lecture to find his wife gone, his child dead, and his in-laws beyond distressed. His wife, Signe (Helle Fagralid), has been remanded to psychiatric care, and the bulk of the film is told in Johannes’s voice, in flashback, as he dialogues with Signe’s forensic psychologist and tries to explore and explain what happened. Thus we go back in time to find Johannes single, for some time, it is intimated. He meets schoolteacher Signe in a bar, and the two become a couple, despite differences: Signe’s parents, and by extension Signe, have “bourgeois taste,” which means that they like simple, directly expressive (kitschy) things; she is open and outgoing where he is reserved; she wears her heart on her sleeve while he is an intellectual. The two are a bit of an odd match, but we see how their differences are potentially complimentary as well. Signe becomes pregnant, and the film from there on out is a portrait of the day-to-day reality of their lives. Johannes starts filming a new movie (which will be Beauty and the Beast) and Signe becomes jealous, paranoid that he is falling for or involved with the film’s adolescent star (who he wrote the role for specifically). He takes on the defense of a fellow filmmaker whose movie about the sex life of Jesus has gotten him into trouble with financing and censorship. There are no major dramatics; instead, Johannes is often simply absent, and when present does not seem to know how to deal with or read his wife. Signe has not hid her mental problems from Johannes, but after her pregnancy and as time goes on, the manic-depression becomes more of a factor, and he is ill-prepared to deal with it (although he does so in the staid, calm, rational way one would expect). What develops, perhaps despite itself (it is difficult to say how consciously self-critical Malmros is in this film) is a portrait of a marriage where one partner is often mentally or physically absent, involved in his creative work, while the other, already of a type more expansive and less “self-sufficient,” becomes more neurotic and isolated. There is a minimal amount of “suspense,” as we await the outcome of the trial which will remand Signe to more or less time in a mental hospital (the parents of the students in her class, in typical Scandinavian fashion, all lobby for her to return to teaching as soon as possible), but really the film is not about outcomes, but about the nature of the husband/wife relationship. It forms a kind of loop; at the end, we see our couple in the year 2010, although not much aged at all. Signe is “better,” and asks her husband why he hasn’t made a film in so long, and why he hasn’t made one about being an adult. He takes this (and so does she, as portrayed) as a question about why he hasn’t addressed their marriage and the death of their child on film. He claims it is because he cannot portray such a thing – the scream of their dying child – but as soon as he says it, you can see the wheels start to turn, and he promptly announces that he could make a film about it, without portraying that moment. Indeed, the film, as he imagines it, can become something like a redemption. Our film, now also a prospective film, ends almost where it began, just shortly before Johannes drives off to give the lecture that fateful day. He arranges for his wife’s parents to stop by and check in on her (as she has just been released from the psychiatric hospital), and despite the bad weather, is about to head off. Having a premonition of violence, he stops, removes an ax from the stump in front of the house, and throws it into the tool bin within the garage. (His wife does not make use of an ax in any case). Then he drives off for his lecture, and the film ends.

Perhaps, dear reader, you can sense why these films feel odd. Pain of Love is definitely the odder of the two, which comes as little surprise, as it is avowedly about the tragic infanticide, yet will not approach it openly. It is also avowedly recounted from his wife’s “point of view,” yet imagines her as a latent teen, not the fully formed woman we find, perhaps bereft by the impacts of matrimony, in Sorrow and Joy. Pain of Love, made 8 years after the events it claims to portray, sublimates some details and changes others in the oddest ways. For instance, Malmros is not fully present in the narrative – he is partly portrayed as the older man who gets Kirsten pregnant, and also as the less-older teacher who helps her raise the child. This split preserves all the roles of fatherhood – the physical act of impregnation as well as the daily task of raising the child – while making the agency required less direct and hence less accountable. (We can only guess at why he imagines this child of his as the product of another, and he the loving “step-father,” but the guesses are none too flattering). Then there is the question of the ending; Kirsten leaves the baby behind, in the care of step-father Soren, while she takes leave of this mortal coil. If Malmros is not working out some kind of wish-fulfillment with this change, he should consider how it looks. Based on his Q&A talk, I think he is trying to signify that the death of the child was an act of self-destruction, rooted in issues to do with his wife’s self-conception, and not an act of hatred toward the infant or a violent rejection of motherhood. The fact that so many of the details have been shifted, and re-imagined within a different context, however, makes any reading squishy and unpleasant feeling, as the main topic becomes the question “Why didn’t he make Sorrow and Joy in 1992?” Malmros would claim that it was too soon… but my response would be, it was not too soon to make use of the events as fodder for an exercise in sublimation, that resulted in not only a weaker film on its own merits, but one that is now rife with strange projections and transformations that beg second level psychoanalyzing. It is a film that displays a hostility to his wife’s character that is itself sublimated.

Sorrow and Joy, while the stronger of the two films, also, in the end, misses the mark. At least in the more recent account, Malmros is present as a character, as is the question of how much he is responsible for the event. His character can definitely be criticized, which is a strength – his treatment of Signe is, at certain points, uncaring and unfair, and, at least in this instance, the film reflects this self-awareness. How aware he is of the other faults in his characterization is hard to tell, as they are simply portrayed, and not discussed within the rap session with the psychoanalyst. What worries me, and causes me to wonder how much Malmros might care to investigate his own affective life, is the ending of the film. The ending frames the making of Sorrow and Joy as a redemption of the tragedy. This I fully do not understand, especially as the last shots are of the empty gesture of Johannes moving the ax out of view of the house and into the garage, then leaving. Such an action is obviously only an attempt to assuage his guilt at leaving his sick wife at home during a fragile period; he senses something bad might happen, but displaces it onto an object both too emblematic of violence (too over the top) and also onto an empty gesture. Yes, by all means, move the ax so you can feel better about going to your lecture – like you’ve done something positive here. The film, as it ends, remains tragic, not redemptive, as, given the lacuna of 26 years, Johannes has learned nothing, and will still return home to find his child dead and his wife undone. If, as he states in the moments when he is formulating this new film, Johannes wants to move beyond the trauma through creation, he should make use of the power of film to transform reality, not merely replay it. The correct ending of this film (psychoanalytically speaking) would be for Johannes to blow off his lecture, stay at home with his dear wife, and, at least for that day, put off a dreadful future. That would have been a beautiful ending, one that dealt with recognitions honestly, and at the same time retained its sadness, and did not disavow the trauma that preceded it. It would have re-imagined an ideal future while acknowledging the frailty and faults of man. That Malmros apparently sees a mere repetition as a redemption signals, to me at least, a filmmaker satisfied with himself, for whom the passage of time is static and unyielding, healing all wounds in the style of a cliche: the work nothing more than the visible rippling of the surface of a body of water whose depth we cannot gauge, but whose impassivity is obvious in its aestheticization.

Two stars out of five
for Pain of Love

 

Three stars out of five
for Sorrow and Joy

 

 

Texasville – Peter Bogdanovich (1990)

I enjoyed The Last Picture Show so much that I decided I’d take a look at the sequel, against my better judgement. The fact that the film was adapted from a sequel book by Larry McMurtry set me at some ease. At the least it would be instructive, thought I. Well, I escaped turning into a pillar of salt or a stony statue, I did not stab out my eyes, but sadly that ancient affliction known as “yep – shoulda figured” was unavoidable. Why does this film exist? There are reasons; it is not that bad. All the same, I don’t really feel like tiring myself enumerating them. The main problem is that this movie takes figures who, in the first film, are semi-mythic, mostly because of the proto-American setting and their taciturn nature, and makes them human, all too human. Where the first film’s real focus was on the town itself, and, to a lesser extent, Sonny as the emblem of this community, here Bogdanovich has refocused the drama on a reunion between Jacy and Duane. Did he really think their relationship was so central in the earlier film that it merited reopening? Is the topic of the film bridging the gulf of time, and their characters are the only viable ones left from the first film? Perhaps he felt he needed a more traditional anchor for a drama that is, if possible, even less dramatic than the first film (although it tries much, much harder). All I care to say is that watching this, so soon after having seen the first film, was like a fever dream in reverse – waking from one lovely, lilting unreality into a garish, nightmarish present. The choice to shoot in color, while making absolute sense, doesn’t help this feeling. Neither do the performances. Jeff Bridges is fine, as Duane wasn’t much of a character to begin with – kind of a doofus jerk, who, thirty years on, is an older doofus jerk, mellowed a bit. Cybill Shepherd does well too, and touches of the younger Jacy are still there in terms of her affect. The rest of the original cast, no matter how closely they hew to their previous incarnations, seem unsure of why they are back. For this, I blame the script. Whereas the first film primarily dealt in images, and talking was kept to a minimum, Texasville is almost all talk, and not very interesting talk at that. It makes the characters seem old and insecure, draining out any mystery that previously held sway. Perhaps this is the point. But poor, poor Timothy Bottoms as Sonny is a true tragedy. The script has him, in middle age, already senile and losing it (to be fair, half the characters seem in their premature dotage) – remembering the old days by sitting in the burned out movie theater and watching “movies in the sky” with his one good eye. Bottoms gives a limp, mannered performance. I don’t blame him, but it really is destructive of his work in the earlier film. The details also nag. The tone is semi-farcical, to provide some “action,” I guess, but the levity is undone by a lack of requisite yeast. Harvey Christiansen, for instance, plays Old Man Balt, a character who as far as I can tell is not in the earlier film, but who, in appearance and age seems to be a stand-in for the sheriff and his cohort. Instead of supplying some meaningful link to the past, he falls out of cars and off of horses and says stuff like “What’s on TV?!” while pulling a mug. Ug. Randy Quaid leads up a supporting cast that can find little to do but run around acting manic, looking sweaty, and shooting things up (this is Texas, after all). Whereas the lack of racial diversity in the prior film was a problem, left unspoken and unsolved, Bogdanovich now provides us with one black character – Pearl Jones as housekeeper Minerva, pure comic relief. Double ug. The new characters do better, although Duane’s children seem to be a tired retread and mash-up of aspects of the original young generation, with his son Dickie reworking Sonny’s attraction to the older Ruth into a veritable career of MILF womanizing (as if that was one of the themes of the earlier picture). The number of premature marriages and surprise pregnancies would make your head spin, if any of it mattered. On a positive note, I would like to pay particular homage to Annie Potts, who, as Duane’s wife of twenty years, is the most interesting and “real” of any of them, and dominates the screen handily in her scenes (which thankfully are many). I could go on and on about the alternating doldrums of leaden plot-shaped meatballs and thick slices of cheese which are draped all over this feast, such as Sonny’s dramatic “rescue” from himself at the top of the football field bleachers that brings all the characters together, feel-good eighties style, in the finale. But why bother? There might be something in here about selling out and flattening out in Reagan’s America, but do I care enough to excavate further? Obviously not.

Two stars out of five

The Last Picture Show – Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

The death of small town America, and thus the death of our favorite national imaginary, is by now so done as a topic that I wonder if it even registers anymore. (The Internet has faked us into thinking that geography is irrelevant and that we can all participate in that big whatsit from wherever). Such death is ostensibly the topic of The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s well-known and respected first “real” feature from his trio of successes in the early 1970s. Although I’ve seen the other two (What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon), and enjoyed them, The Last Picture Show remained elusive – which is to say, I never sought it out, so it is no surprise it did not seek me out either. It happened to be playing as a Sunday matinee at one of the many lovely restored theaters around here, in a small town that, while neither as forlorn nor as inward as Anarene, Texas, did resonate upon greeting me, leaving the film, with empty streets and a hard wind blowing.

If The Last Picture Show was simply about the death of small town America, as it has been often mourned, through the teary and false eye of a simple nostalgia, I can bet I wouldn’t have been terribly affected. Thankfully, the film is really about small towns and death, with America being a happenstance, the far-flung relation calling long distance; we see this America in the movies playing at the picture show, in Duane’s new/used automobile, and in the fissures that provide passage out of or toward it (Mexico, military service, the Korean war). Yes, the film is about the death of a kind of community, but the relationship that community bears to the American “community” is unclear, obscured by the vastness of the land and the pressure that lives lived elsewhere provide, slowly compressing this small pebble of a place from afar. What the film really deals with is community as such – how it is formed, almost ad hoc, and how it goes on, simply because it has to for those that remain. We are given entree to this place through the eyes of Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), a quiet, unsure, and ambivalent witness who is unable to tackle life in this small place in any way that produces a satisfying outcome. He is in his last year of high school, and so his fate – what will become of his life? – becomes, in many ways, the fate of the place. The film moves back and forth between a set of teenagers, trying to make their first life decisions (taking guidance from a well-worn and small playbook), and the adults who have to live with their own decisions (and who are also trying to reinvent themselves, although perhaps in small measures, along the way).

The usual cliches about small town existence are avoided. This town is painfully small, and yes, everybody knows everybody else’s business. Whereas in the stereotype of such a community this type of knowledge would lead to ostracism or at least judgmental rumor mongering, Anarene hews closer to the lived reality of such places, where although everyone might know everything that’s happening, judgement recedes and a kind of discretion reigns. Partly this is common sense, the old “don’t shit where you eat” line, but it is also partly compassion of the “we’ve all been there” kind and partly the reality of a forced tribalism, a “we’re all in this together,” even if they’d rather not be. The adults are refreshingly free of bitterness and closed-mindedness, instead trying to impart some wisdom of lived experience while at the same time not discounting their own demanding inner voice, their own desire to feel young or renewed. The teens likewise escape the broad brush, with Jeff Bridge’s semi-dim Duane and Cybill Shepherd’s Jacy being the closest to types we encounter. Jacy in particular could have fallen into the usual mold of the icy, controlling prom queen, but Shephard, particularly in the first half of the movie, portrays her as wistful, unsure, and naive while also craving validation in the usual ways a too-attractive girl might. (It is only after she sets her sights on Sonny that she becomes more craven and hence less sympathetic).

The engine of the drama, if dramatic these events be, is sex. Sex in this community, and this film, is not the hidden aspect of Janus-faced love, ready to tear all stability asunder with the primal forces of desire; rather, love is herein paired with familiarity, and sex provides one of the few forces of novelty in an environment rather devoid of possible permutations. Sex is the force that can and does cut across the static lines of this world (static not because conservative, but simply because this world is small): class, age, power, intellect and experience. What is wonderful about the film is that sex and love are not a simple dichotomy, and that the sex, rather than having unpleasant noir-style implications or “thrills,” instead serves as a way for the characters to generate new alliances, experiences, and (perhaps aborted or sham) voyages of self-discovery. It is a place to pose questions, such as, “How do we live here? What can be done?” and “What does life mean when it has to be small?” Answers are harder to come by. The most resonant of the relationships, and the one that endures in some way, is between Sonny and middle-aged Ruth (Cloris Leachman). Bogdanovich captures the above dynamic perfectly in his portrayal of Ruth’s “seduction” of Sonny. During their first afternoon tryst, the bed springs squeaking perfectly mimic the squalling springs on a screen door as it opens and closes (as they do often in this film, grabbed and flung by the unrelenting winds). Ruth sheds tears, but they are not of remorse, seemingly – perhaps ennui, perhaps confusion. This sound, of the new and the possible, figured as sexual desire and the young lover, and of the return of the old and familiar, figured as monogamous love and the return of the husband, match. There is no escaping the twinning, hence the tears, but neither is this recognition relentless or shattering; indeed, it is, in a way, comforting. Not the terror of being caught, but the reassurance of being caught – the comfort inherent in being held close and accepted, regardless. Her tears and confusion are not those of the trapped, but those of the seeking. As she looks into the middle distance during the proceedings, Ruth seems to be gazing into the human condition as horizon, that flat line also familiar, homely, comforting yet devoid of meaningful marker or measure.

The film ends, as you might guess from the title, with a shot of the movie house, now shuttered and empty. Set in the 1950s (as is George Lucas’s superficially similar but inversely worthy American Graffiti), the film’s main argument is about the death of a kind of community, represented by movie-going, rapidly being replaced by television and the atomization of life (now, in 2015, already in its baroque phase). This is a familiar (and nonetheless true) observation at this point in history, but Bogdanovich’s vision has not dated, as, for one, the film is set in the historic period of this change, and two, his film is an inquiry into a type of community, not an attempt to diagnose a larger (perhaps national) malady. If it is mourning, the film is mourning the death of the human animal; what better place to observe this animal than in its natural habitat which also happens to be, perforce, an enclosure? Movie-going becomes the metaphor for this animal community: it is a semi-random assortment of folk who meet in the dark to alleviate boredom, to canoodle, to forget themselves, and also to gaze on one another, in an attempt to make meanings that are individually elusive. Thus the death of the picture show is much darker than the film portrays, as it implies a coming reality where individuals are deemed sufficient to figure it out on their own, always already outside the nest. Yet Bogdanovich (and Larry McMurtry, who likely deserves equal credit) is not simply practicing an admittedly higher form of nostalgia here, as he also questions what the nature of this “human animal” really is. Near the end of the film, simple Billy (Sam Bottoms), at his Sisyphean task of sweeping out the road, is struck in the middle of the street and killed by a passing truck. The sheriff and his old cronies stand about, tut-tutting and confirming for themselves Billy’s stupidity, his uselessness. Perhaps this is simply a performance, salve to the man who hit him, or perhaps a way of denying their own sadness. But it is coldness and distance nonetheless, and leads to Sonny’s flight out of town, then back into town, and, eventually, to Ruth, both to make amends (we assume) and for comfort. This leads to the perfect, heartbreaking final scenes, where Ruth and Sonny try to speak, but cannot find words. Instead, the purely animal, the comfort and touch of another sympathetic body, presents the only bulwark, if not solution. At the same time, the ending is tragic, as it represents Sonny’s (and our) realization that perhaps this community of human animals was and is a sham, a self-satisfied delusion – that individual meanness and might-makes-right is the way of the human animal, in or outside of a community. Thus the figure of Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) as singular. Not, as we first think, as the last of the old-timers, but as their exception: an animal of power, but also of kindness and help. The question that torments Sonny is, perhaps, does the exception prove the rule? And is he capable of inheriting such a mantle?

Four and a half stars out of five

 

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood (2014)

American Sniper is a perplexing film, and I have no good idea why Clint Eastwood felt compelled to make it. As an investigation of what it means to be a sniper, and in particular, this sniper, the deadliest in our history, it falls short; it is most definitely more of a biography of Chris Kyle than anything else, and his sniping career is relegated to some highlights early in the film, with the balance concerning itself with his actions on the ground, fighting more conventionally (if we can call asymmetric urban warfare conventional at this point in time). I’m sure the detractors of the film, most of whom I would guess have not actually seen it, would say, “Well, he made it as a hagiography to a war hero,” as there is a perception that Eastwood is somehow a conservative or reactionary in his choice of subjects and in his political views. Putting aside his bizarre and pathetic performance at the Republican Convention in 2012, I have always found this view of Eastwood troubling, as his films do not support it. I’ll admit, I am a fan of his work, both before and behind the camera, but even good ol’ Dirty Harry is not the right-wing vigilante freak everyone thinks – or at the least, such a reading is terribly one-dimensional (admittedly, he did not direct Dirty Harry, and while the sequels do go more toward establishing Harry as a reactionary, they are some of Eastwood’s least interesting work, and still, there is nuance to all of them). Eastwood has portrayed violence and war, at least since Unforgiven, as a weakness and a failing, albeit at times as a purposeful one. But I am digressing.

What makes me question the nature of this film is that Eastwood does, for the majority of the running time, take a critical view of Chris Kyle. Critical in the sense that many knee-jerk lefties would want? No. He does not castigate his subject. That would not be art, but mere propaganda, folks, and Eastwood is an artist, even if you dislike the portraits he paints. By critical, I mean that he portrays Kyle as a fairly simple man who doesn’t think about things too deeply, and who represses not only the bad experiences of the war, but lives in denial about the horrible things he has to do in combat. And those things are portrayed as horrible. I have read many a commentary on Facebook (if not from critics) by those who feel that the violence is staged in a way that gives the audience a vicarious thrill – for instance, the slow-motion “bullet time” sequence that serves as a kind of climax, and results in the death of the dread enemy sniper. This is patently untrue. The violence in this film is staged in a way that is little different from many other contemporary films about the Iraq conflict (such as Hurt Locker). It is bloody, brutal, and grim, and the principles involved obviously take no pleasure in it. The style highlights the confusing, ugly nature of the battlefield, and the soundtrack, devoid of music except for low electronic atmospherics that build dread during these sequences, follows that lead. Now, I have also seen arguments to the effect that any film that portrays warfare is, de facto, providing the audience with a vicarious thrill simply by portraying such things for us, safe and snug in our seats. To this I can only say that, while perhaps this is so, I find a world of politically correct, policed representations boring at best, and smug and censorious at worst. How exactly are we to make sense of the world around us, or engage in a discussion as a culture, outside of representation? I would ask those who think along these lines to read Paul Virilio’s excellent book War and Cinema, for he explicates that the technologies, and modes of viewing, that make both war and cinema possible are deeply intertwined, and have been from the beginning of film history. If you want to give up viewing film totally because it is implicated in violence, go ahead; I don’t disagree, but I won’t be joining you.

Still, I am digressing. Let me get specific. At the beginning of the film, we witness Kyle sniping a child and his mother, seemingly of necessity. We then jump back in time, to his own childhood, and witness his father taking him hunting, and standing by while he makes his first kill (a deer). The death of the deer is played down in favor of Dad lecturing him on how to properly treat his weapon. So in the first few moments of the film, Eastwood is linking the idea of Kyle’s skill (shooting well) to the death of the innocent (and of innocence itself, I would argue): the child in the street, used as a pawn, and the animal in the forest. We then get a sequence wherein Kyle’s father attempts to justify how he can use his skill, obviously a menacing one, for the greater good – he is the sheepdog, one of the elect few that can protect the majority of humans (the sheep) from the evil-doers (the wolves). We sense that Eastwood is already skeptical of such a schema, as he portrays Dad as a gruff hothead, containing the implicit threat of violence about to uncoil itself, and we sense this nice little story is of the type that can bend at will to make sheep into wolves as need be. The rest of the film, we expect, will be, if not a judgement on this origin story, at least an exploration of its truth value. A short while later, we see Kyle exit from a barn the outside of which is covered, somewhat ominously, in the antlers of many animals that he has obviously taken with his “skill.” Kyle, during this pre-military portion of his life, is portrayed as a roughneck without much motivation or introspection; not a bad guy, necessarily, but no sheepdog either. He is soon shaken out of this sleepiness (not too convincingly, I might add) by the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya, and, after enrolling as a Seal, at the ripe age of 30, is further convinced of his calling by 9/11. All of this Eastwood portrays more or less flatly; the boot camp sequences are fairly devoid of the usual humor that binds the audience to the recruits in terms of point of view, and Kyle seems a little bit of a fish out of water, and still a little dim.

The tone throughout the film stays mostly in this mode. Kyle is not portrayed as a hero, and Eastwood is “critical” in the sense that he most identifies with the point of view of Kyle’s wife on the home front. Kyle is, instead, portrayed as being in much denial: of his growing PTSD, of his addiction to combat, of the impact of his choices on his family. He views the Iraqis as “evil” and calls them “savages,” and while Eastwood doesn’t really correct this view, he does question it, particularly with the figure of Marc Lee, a would-be pastor from Oregon who calls Kyle out on his faux-religiosity and his one-sided denials. (At the same time, it can also be said that Eastwood provides few Iraqis in the film who aren’t complicit with the terrorists. At the same time, he does humanize Kyle’s rival, the sniper Mustafa, by lingering on a photograph of him before the war, as a clean-cut looking young athlete, medaled and on a podium). Throughout, Kyle’s viewpoint is portrayed as simplistic and, if not dangerous, at least becoming self-destructive. The film is hardly the portrait in heroism and an apology for war that its detractors would make it out to be.

Except… Eastwood falls down in the end. Having set up this growing critique of Kyle, and the original moral question of self-justified violence, Eastwood refuses to follow through. The film ends in a blur of unsatisfying sequences that seem to self-abort rather than make a judgement. For instance, a trip out hunting with Kyle’s own son, where we’d naturally expect some sort of dramatic counterpoint to that first such sequence, now with the added weight of Kyle’s horrible experiences behind the scope, is short and perfunctory. He says something to the effect of “Today you’ll take your first life, son, and I’ll be right there with you.” End scene. I guess he doesn’t fetishize the weapon like dear old Dad, but is this an improvement? Kyle comes off, if not still in denial, as one-dimensional as ever his thinking. Kyle’s trip to solve his PTSD, which, given the depth of his denial, we expect to be fraught, goes quite easily – he denies he has a problem, the VA doc introduces him to some disabled vets who need his help, and he helps them… by taking them target shooting. Suddenly Kyle seems back to “normal.” Again, end scene. The final sequence of the film, which alludes to the Marine who allegedly murdered Kyle, portrays him suspiciously, from the point of view of Kyle’s worried wife, peeping out the cracked front door, seemingly having a premonition of something bad coming. Eastwood could have here made the connection between Kyle’s PTSD and this man’s state, as brothers in arms equally unhinged – or, even if not taking it that far, at least as the consequence of PTSD not so easily “cured.” Instead, Kyle’s wife shuts the door, we get a quick title telling us what happened, and then cue file footage of Kyle’s heroic death parade. Roll credits. Did Eastwood lose his nerve? This is my only theory, as the rest of the film is too much like Eastwood’s other films – that is, the work of a questioning artist, not a hack. But the ending is, sadly, very weak, if not hackwork.

All of which makes me again question – why did Eastwood make this film? And why are audiences attracted to it? It is well made, and well acted, and does raise some issues discursively, but all in all it is bland, does not offer vicarious thrills, and provides a payoff that is unconvincing and feels like it is pulling punches. It does, in its mixed way, offer a place that all sides can converge on, not feeling offended or preached to, a site that provides the opportunity for real discussion. At the same time, as a work of art, it is quite disappointing. The film is very far from the exercise in jingoism it has been made out to be, but it is also far from the best film of the year, and does not deserve Oscars. As someone who expects more from Eastwood, I left discouraged. There are too many very good films about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for this to rank among the top tier. In particular, I’d recommend Nick Broomfield’s criminally underseen The Battle for Haditha (2007), a masterpiece of verité filmmaking (although it is a “fiction” film) that treats all sides of the conflict with equanimity.

Two and a half stars out of five

A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (2014)

I’ll admit it: I dislike Jessica Chastain. Like most prejudices, there is no very good reason behind this one. She’s not a terribly versatile actress – and she never struck me as a sincere one either. (The tabloids have made some small fodder about her actual age, which she’s been coy about; this bothers me not a whit, as actresses need to be cagey given the crap they have to deal with to find work. All the same, playing a teenage orphan at age 31, as she did in Jolene, which “introduced” her to a wider viewing public, is pushing it, given that she looks close to her age). Her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life summed up her range: attractive in a porcelain kind of way, competent enough, but not much there there. No heat or depth, and “warm” and “caring” in that aloof way that fails to charm or convince. Her subsequent work in Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Interstellar, ostensibly gritty roles, did nothing to modify my view. A lot of strident striding around, being “tough” in a cardboard kind of way which also somehow verged on chewing the scenery. It is with some relief that I can thus report that her turn in A Most Violent Year, in the role of a Brooklyn mafioso’s streetwise daughter (scary to contemplate, I know) actually comes off with some subtlety. The accent is a bit dodgy, but her performance is, dare I say it, convincing, and even a little bit sexy. Her part, while well written, is somewhat underwritten too – or, at least, not the narrative driver that we expect. Many things about the film are unexpected, though.

What’s this movie about? I had no idea. It looked like a gangster movie, and the little I’d read didn’t dissuade me from that evaluation, except to add that the film was slow and had no plot. Okay, so what? (I like it better already, probably). In reality, this is a drama about the dog eat dog world of the heating oil business circa 1981 New York. Yes, this probably accounts for the mystique surrounding the promotion of the film. We keep expecting it to be a gangster movie, or at least, for heating oil to meet up with Chastain’s Dad in a back alley to seal the deal. No dice. Oscar Isaac, looking like the love child of Al Pacino and Armand Assante, plays Abel Morales, one of the larger players in said industry, on the verge of making it to the big leagues – he’s just put down his life savings on an oil import terminal, and now has thirty days to clear the money to own it outright, or lose his deposit and the property. The film is basically a portrait of those thirty days, and of his quest to secure the funds against the machinations of his competition (and the District Attorney). Chandor does not play this out the way you might think, however – little overt “suspense” or action, just time passing and bad news piling up. This is not a flaw, though, for the low-key portrait is plenty compelling and fits with the larger purpose of this tale. Morales, in some ways a false echo of Pacino in Godfather III, is set on playing it straight, doing things in an above-board way, and not solving violence with violence. The backstories to all the characters are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out (again, all to the good, at least in my mind). We get the feeling that he owes his business opportunity to his father-in-law, and that, since then, he has worked to differentiate himself from that path. Working against him, in smallish ways, are his wife, who instinctually reverts to the family way of solving problems, and his lawyer, played by an excellent Albert Brooks, who we come to understand is also Dad-in-law vestigial. The film keys us to expect that, given the continual road blocks thrown up to Abel’s plans, eventually he will turn to bad Daddy for help, and this will be his downfall. If not that, we think perhaps he will reveal his true colors, and the film does develop some tension along the lines of “how far can a good man be pushed?” And also: “is this a good man in a bad position, or a bad man trying to go good who, unable to change his ways, will pay for denying his true nature?” Without giving anything away, I will say that the film answers those questions without satisfying any expectations. More than anything, this is a film about how little distance there often is between being a businessman and being a thug; or rather, that being in business often means doing things the wrong way, grinding people down, and acting like a mafioso, because that’s the nature of making money, and that the firewalls society sets up to supposedly prevent this from happening are indeed disingenuous, obfuscations that allow us to pretend “civilized” behavior and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As a portrait of life in (an admittedly shadier than average) business, and of New York in the early 1980s, it is extremely well done, always compelling and interesting without ever feeling trite or falling into generic expectations (as it is not a genre film after all). The ending, while a bit contrived and expected, is symbolic of the whole enterprise, and of Morales’s untenable position. On the whole a very satisfying, unexpected pleasure.

Three and a half stars out of five