Son of Saul – Laszlo Nemes (2015)

Son of Saul, the first feature film by Hungarian director László Nemes, stirred up much controversy at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where many, including the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, denounced it as exploitative, despite the fact that it went on to win the Grand Prix. If you don’t know that the film is about one prisoner’s experience of the Holocaust, the controversy perhaps makes little sense. And on the surface, one might be able to imagine why: the film follows the daily experiences of one Sonderkommando at Auschwitz with a level of detail and single-mindedness rare in previous representations of the Holocaust. Of the film’s defenders, perhaps the most surprising is Claude Lanzmann, the documentarian whose 10 hour film Shoah, which eschews direct visual reference to the atrocities of the camps, remains the definitive account of the event. Lanzmann, a critic of almost all cinematic narrative approaches to the subject, hailed the film as an “anti-Schindler’s List” and “a very new film, very original, very unusual.” Given this unusual praise from a notoriously caustic skeptic, this viewer entered assuming that the controversy would be self-evident, and I would leave the film feeling either transported or repelled. So perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that its greatest mystery is the controversy surrounding it. The subject matter is indeed intense, and the narrative does not utilize the usual tactics when dealing with this subject: it does not sentimentalize the experience (much) and it does not take a sweeping, definitive approach, as does a film like Schindler’s List. It does deal with the day to day realities of the camps that even the grittiest films on the subject (outside of purely exploitative works nobody tends to take seriously as anything but prurient titillation) do not much linger on: the deception necessary on the part of the Sonderkommando (Jewish prisoners dragooned into making the death machine run as smoothly as possible) to facilitate the quick movement of fresh prisoners from the trains, into the showers, and then, after their executions, the backbreaking, numbed task of pilling corpses onto carts, feeding them into the ovens, cleaning up, picking through belongings, and thus resetting the stage for it to happen again, and again. What is shocking is that, given the film’s program, it does not have much impact. Despite the praise of Mr. Lanzmann, the film does indulge in a narrative that, while not melodramatic in the sense that many other Holocaust films are, still very much fits the mold of an art film, with a desire to be symbolic on an almost literary level, and to make use of many contrivances to push forward an account of the Holocaust that is, despite its opening rhetoric of inescapable, quotidian horror, a tale of an exceptional individual seeking a redemption no less audacious (and perhaps more repellent) than Oscar Schindler’s.

It is hard to proceed without spoiling something, I suppose; or rather, the film is already spoiled, as we know how things will inevitably end from the beginning (this being a film about that horror with no exit), the experience of viewing the film unaware of all else about it the only way to keep it from being foreclosed from the start. The plot takes little describing. A Hungarian Sonderkommando named Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) witnesses a boy, still alive, pulled from under a pile of corpses in the gas chamber. He later calls this boy, soon snuffed out by a Nazi doctor, his son, but the actuality of this assertion is in question; other prisoners claim he has no son. It becomes his quest, for reasons obscure and either indicative of Saul’s utter acceptance of his existential situation, or of the loss of his sanity, to preserve this boy from an autopsy and find a rabbi to give him a proper Jewish burial. Over the course of a day and a half or so, Saul will manage to move from one work gang to others, across many different modes of camp life, to fulfill his quest – and, at the same time, to provide us viewers with a tour of the camp that, while different from those provided by other Holocaust films in terms of point of view, is much similar to other films in terms of its desired sweep. As it happens, Saul’s quest overlaps with a very unusual time in the history of Auschwitz, and of the camps in general: the prisoner revolt of October 7, 1944, which led to the destruction of one of the crematoria and the escape of many prisoners through the wire fence. Saul is tasked with helping in this rebellion, but his single mindedness botches his part in the revolt, which causes his fellow Jews to excoriate him for prioritizing the dead over the living. Nonetheless, Saul manages to escape with the other Sonderkommando, the dead boy over his shoulder, and in the final moments of the film, he fails in his ultimate task, losing the boy’s body as he attempts to ford a river. Hiding with other escapees in a wooded shed, Saul sees a young German boy, about the age of the Jewish child he attempted to bury, spy them through the door. He smiles strangely, as if relieved, and the boy runs away as German soldiers approach to execute the escaped prisoners. We follow the boy as he flees into the woods, and hear the sound of distant gunfire.

What makes the film truly unique, and gives it what interest and intensity it has, is its formal technique of tying the camera to Saul’s point of view in a very austere way. Nemes uses a very shallow depth of field and the Academy aspect ratio of 1.375:1 to restrict our view of the camp drastically. The camera is almost always centered on the back of Saul’s head, following him as he moves and performs his required tasks, sometimes pivoting around the side so we can see his profile or the front of his face; in a few rare cases, he moves away from it to give us a glimpse of a fuller reality. In all cases, however, the depth of field is so shallow that almost everything we see of the camps is a blur and indistinct – the horrors are suggested rather than dramatized. The result is that the film’s visuals reflect Saul’s interiority and single-mindedness to an exceptional degree. He is only concentrating on what is right in front of him, the task at hand, either as a means of survival or as the unsurprising result of such numbing trauma, and the film succeeds in making his perspective ours to an uncanny degree. The true horror of the surrounding events is conveyed by sound design that, while exceptionally well done, makes up in the aural sphere for the lack of visual obscenity. We hear the doomed screaming, wailing, and pounding on the iron doors to the gas chamber as the poisoned air does its work; we hear methodical gunshots and cries of despair as person after person is led into a ditch backlit by unfocused, burning pyres. The most disturbing aspect of the film is the pairing of Saul’s impassive demeanor as he mechanically moves through a multitude of spaces with these auditory nightmares. While heavy-handed in the extreme, to the point of perhaps indeed being obscene, the opening of the movie has power in the methodical repetition of this grinding reality. That movie, where we simply follow Saul for two hours as he is forced to do such infernal work, would have truly been unique and unusual, although perhaps intolerable (and impossible to imagine being funded by any investor anywhere). As it is, though, the movie acquires its plot, and as Saul begins his quest, the “reality” thus established starts to seep away. We very quickly enter the realm of the symbolic, and pretentiously so – is the dead child Saul’s real son? Or is he a representative (pace Arthur Miller) of all the dead sons left unredeemed? Is Saul insane and selfish, sacrificing the possibility of escape from the camp for others in favor of a sham symbolism? Or is he the most clear-eyed of everyone, seeing that there is no escape, and hence, albeit absurdly, working toward one holy act within a sea of desecration? All these questions are made possible only by setting the film during this exceptional and uncharacteristic moment in the life of the camps, just as Saul’s task makes possible a tour of the camps for our sake which would also, in almost any moment of camp existence, be equally unlikely. Thus we have contrivance heaped upon contrivance, all to ask a series of questions that have no answer and, ultimately, no purpose aside from a self-serving, pseudo-poetic one. It seems bizarre, given such a setup, for Lanzmann to claim that the film “gives a very real sense of what it was like to be in the Sonderkommando” – as if he is an arbiter of such realities! Of course one, upon seeing the film, understands what he is getting at, but we also understand, perhaps more so than in other films, just how vast the gulf is between what we can know about such experience and what is represented before us; and in this fact, we might find the film’s saving grace. For at the end of Son of Saul, we are all forced to ask: what was the point? Not simply of this film, but of representing the Holocaust at all? What are we doing? Trying to learn something? Trying to have sympathy with those who were destroyed? Getting a vicarious thrill – or feeling an unearned pride at play-suffering in a mock parallel with those who were lost? For all its failure and pretension on a narrative and artistic level, the ending of the film, with Saul’s queasy, self-satisfied smile patching over a bogus transcendence, meaningful only to an insane mind, provides a reflection of the viewers of such films. We watch Holocaust films seeking the void, but can only find pleasure of some sort; usually the most narcissistic, self-deluding variety. We hide from the truth, which is that we want to enjoy this horror. Perhaps, in this way, films like SS Experiment Love Camp, while the saddest response to this moment in history, are also the most honest. Perhaps Lanzmann had it right all along – you cannot represent the Holocaust directly.

Two out of five stars

The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino (2015)

I was so excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making his first Western. Now, Tarantino is not one of my favorite directors by a long shot – in fact, he has yet to make anything close to a great film. He has always been a very facile director, and never fails to entertain; what sets him apart from other directors is that he thinks cinematically, and makes use of a wide variety of cinema’s formal devices to aid in the task of entertaining us. Noted for his distinctive voice and his ability to write gobs of dialogue that snap and pull us along, Tarantino has, all the same, failed to apply that voice to the task of saying something. His films are about little more than the experience of watching films; at least until recently. While I am in the distinct minority that finds Deathproof to be his best work, a vehicle where he finally unleashed all his energy as a purely genre filmmaker, generating little more than 90 minutes of adrenaline, it is nonetheless true that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained both were exceptionally good films, and marked a turning point for him in terms of narrative concern. Both of those films took as their subject a certain historical revisionism, but one that revised history by way of playing with and detourning the tropes of past films which were themselves already revisions of historical “fact.” I found Inglourious Basterds exceptional in the parts where Tarantino departed most from being Tarantino, where we almost forgot we were watching a postmodern pastiche and instead slipped into a kind of serious art film about World War II (the parts with Christoph Waltz, that is, and not the idiotic stuff like the intrusive ’70s exploitation freeze frame on Eli Roth swinging a baseball bat). “If only Tarantino would ditch his shtick and make a straightforward, serious historical film,” said I. Well, Django was resolutely not such a film, but it was an incredible one nonetheless, containing some of the most perverse and jarring questioning of racist representations, and their presence at the core of our national self-conception, that any director has posed. It was also very funny and rousing, giving us a black hero who finally begins to revenge himself on the stupidity of past screen representations; Tarantino deconstructs our own expectations, almost making fun of us, while also entertaining us. Given that upward trajectory, I was quite hopeful that The Hateful Eight would be more along those lines, a take on the Western genre that both satisfied as a genre film while also having something to say about how those films relate to our still unquenchable thirst for manifest destiny, male desire, etc etc. Instead, Tarantino gives us a three hour “Agatha Christie” Western. Why has nobody thought of such a hybrid before? Perhaps the answer is self-evident. I must give Tarantino credit for such a radical conception, as it assuredly fits the formal mold of his more recent efforts. If only it were any good…

Okay, maybe that was a bit low. It is good enough, in the sense that all his films are good enough – it is entertaining. Mostly. Along with Kill Bill: Vol. 2, though, it is the most leaden and boring of Tarantino’s output. The plot is a kind of Ten Little Indians without any suspense or “mystery.” Eight scummy Western varmints find themselves trapped together in a small mountain cabin during a blizzard. There is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter noted for bringing his captives in alive, so the hangman can get his due, and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a feral woman who, we eventually learn, is leader of a nasty gang of thugs. There is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), also a bounty hunter, and a former Union officer, who begins the film by hitching a ride with Ruth in his private stagecoach. There is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), newly elected sheriff of the town of Red Rock, purported destination of all involved, and a former Confederate soldier, who also hitches a ride with Ruth. At the cabin (really a store – Minnie’s Haberdashery), we meet Bob (Demian Bichir), a strange Mexican with little to say about his past; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), an English hangman, headed to Red Rock to start work; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a lone wolf cowpoke; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate officer who doesn’t like people yelling in his ear while he sits under a blanket. Is that eight? I hope so. Well, once everyone is all snuggled up together, we get treated to a long session of Ruth making the circuit of the cabin, asking everyone about their origins, and then the characters hash over the veracity of said origins, in a style that feels like Tarantino channeling Encyclopedia Brown. Everyone is not who they say they are – imagine that! What is the mystery afoot? Basically, who will get their head blown off, or their testicles shot through, and when. Told in chapters, the film jumps back and forth somewhat in time, building “tension” through withholding information that, if presented chronologically, would make for a straightforward tale of treachery and revenge. It would still be a tale which we have little stake in, but at least it would dispense with the pretension that there is some puzzle to be solved. Even though we have copious backstory on each character, we don’t care about their fate, as they aren’t real to us; only Samuel L. Jackson succeeds in making his character (really the main one) sympathetic, to the point that we do care about his fate. I dare not say much more about the course the film takes, as it would “spoil” it, but there is very little to this movie – after you’ve seen it once, I can’t see the need to revisit it. Does it have any relationship to the Western as a genre? Barely. The tone is of a piece with Django, a kind of unconcealed glee at the nastiness of its subject matter, but in Django, the subject was a revenge rightfully deserved, and it implicated the audience in a very intelligent way. The Hateful Eight is grim, nihilistic, borderline misogynist, and, in the end, dreary. There are good performances – Walton Goggins is a standout alongside Jackson – and a few intelligent points about race, but you leave the theater wondering what the necessity of any of it was, the mood souring the longer you dwell on the ending. Even the original score by Morricone is uninspired and quite conventional. I must admit, I didn’t see it in 70mm, which might have at least provided some further diversion during the tedious middle 45 minutes, but really, why Tarantino pulled out those stops for this picture is the real mystery.

Two out of five stars

The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?

So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.

What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.

Two stars out of five

Infinitely Polar Bear – Maya Forbes (2015)

Yes, indeed, another indie film that nobody asked for, on a topic that has some liberal cache, amped further up by the casting choices. This is practically a genre in and of itself anymore: the “social issue” film that is also a family portrait, which takes on a “tough” topic in an insistently upbeat manner, and generally resolves itself in anodyne fashion. We could mistake it for fluff, mere Hollywood fake sunshine, but the salty language of the kids and their “unconventional” interactions with Dad round it out, giving it supposed grit and indie cred. I didn’t expect much more; I arrived hoping simply for some cute kids (which were mostly delivered) and for an interesting performance from Mark Ruffalo (which was less delivered on). The chemistry between Mom and Dad (Zoe Saldana and Mr. Ruffalo) is pretty much non-existent, which, while helping the majority of the film, as Mom and Dad are separating and growing distant, does little to shore up any backstory of how in the hell Mom and Dad got together in the first place. Oh yes, it was the ’60s, and Mom mistook Dad’s bipolar behavior for a lighter unconventionality, which was apparently in bloom during the hippy heyday along with peace, love, and dope. It certainly helps to explain why the film is set in the 1970s. Otherwise, what could the reason be? An aversion to cell phones as plot devices? A desire to watch all the characters chain smoke unabashedly? The inauthentic double gift of a time that was both let it all hang out weird as well as stodgy and conservative, as needed by the dictates of the script? (The narrative makes a lame stab at a framing device, in which we understand that the film is a recollection of the now grown children, but it never follows through on this). As a portrait of someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, it is definitely the Cole Porter version – Auntie Mame seems more unbalanced. As a family portrait, it is not very compelling, as we don’t have enough backstory or conflict to care, and the kids, while cute, are not terribly charming or sympathetic (ditto for Ruffalo. Saldana doesn’t even have a chance). It is also quite static. We start the film with Dad easing back into life after a stint in the hospital, with Mom carrying the burden of working. Dad, even without bipolar, comes from blue blood old money now gone to seed, so is not terribly equipped to work even in ideal circumstances. Mom, having an onerous, no-pay library job, decides to apply to Columbia, get her MBA, and then come back and support the family. Dad and kids, living in Boston, stay put, and the main meat of the film (ham hock though it be) is the portrayal of Dad going from a doddering father with less responsibility to a doddering father with more responsibility. Mom is gone for over a year, visiting on some weekends, and holds out a romantic reunion with Dad as a carrot to keep him motivated. Unsurprisingly, when the MBA arrives, Mom is not interested in Dad anymore, but Dad seems okay with the fact, or at least accepting, after he and Mom hug it out, crying together over a grill in the park. Mom will take a job in New York, Dad will keep the kids in Boston, and the future will grind on as it was, although with more money. The kids, resistant to Dad’s unconventional ways early on, still resist, and still scream obscenities, but now at least acknowledge that they love him while flipping him the bird. Or something like that. (I am making the film sound more dramatic than it is). Yes, this is looking to be my shortest review ever. Nothing happens in this film that you wouldn’t expect, and nothing happens that would be out of place on your average weekly TV drama. The sets look like leftovers from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Ruffalo wears Lacoste polos all film long and smokes like an affected movie Nazi. His father is played, briefly, by Keir Dullea, the whitest man alive. If any of this sounds exciting, or moving, please, do go and light your world on fire with this film’s torpid placidity. If you like cute kids swearing, you might be mildly satisfied. Plenty of crappy, wanna-be upbeat pseudo Polyphonic Spree music can be heard. Also, the title makes close to no sense.

Two stars out of five

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2015)

It is the thickest part of the season of my discontent. On one side of me there lies a geriatric robot using himself, gallantly, as a human torpedo to keep the future safe for dragons on HBO. On the other side, there is the formerly formidable Vincent D’onofrio delivering a more compelling facsimile of Orson Welles than he did in Ed Wood. I, feeling unhappy that my blazon of filmic revelation had fallen temporarily silent, tried to thread the needle, and so ventured forth into the unknown night that is yet another tale of a chipmunk face, a cancer girl, and a detached black youth (tasked, as ever in Hollywoodland, with keeping it real). I entered hoping to laugh, to cry, or at least to fake it until I made it. I left unchanged, untouched, my memory of what transpired like a koan, written upside down in fine grain during a sandstorm. Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is ostensibly a serio-comic tearjerker, a product of the superbrain that guided eight episodes of Glee and one episode of The Carrie Diaries into port. I do not mean to slander Mr. Gomez-Rejon, for he has assuredly accomplished more in the way of putting images before the eyes of the public than have I. All the same, this film felt like a half-baked TV leftover, a drooper episode of Gilmore Girls written whilst on quaaludes. It aims neither high, nor low, but for the distinctly average; indeed, it feels as if written by a computer algorithm that churned through Rushmore and The Fault in Our Stars, averaging out the highs and lows, retaining the twee and sappy, and adding a black person. (Perhaps it is already ahead of the output of Wes Anderson in that department).

So what happens here? An “I’m charming because of my fake humility and fraudulent low self-esteem” narrator, the titular chipmunk-faced Me (Thomas Mann, also known as Greg, and not known as the creator of the Magic Mountain) is brow-beaten by his mother (Connie Britton) into spending time with a dying girl (Olivia Cooke, also known as Rachel) for what reason we cannot comprehend. (Mom is apparently a knee-jerk beeotch, dedicated to her son’s unhappiness). In requisite ironic deadpan fashion, Greg and Rachel trade lame jokes, and lame revelations, all the while slowly forming that dread connection known as friendship. Rachel has cancer. Greg makes insipid parodies of Hollywood films, with titles like Death in Tennis and Pooping Tom. He mimics Werner Herzog’s at this point played out monologue about the horrors of the jungle. He hangs out with Earl, who is his silent partner in auteurship and not a friend, but a “coworker.” As Rachel gets sicker, Greg and Earl pretend to be forced to regale her with their cinematic output (is there a connection here?). Soon, a hot girl that Greg likes discovers his secret life as a cineaste, and guilts him into making a movie explicitly for the dying girl. Greg, lame loafer that he is (I know, he is supposedly dragging his feet because he knows his tribute will kill her which, SPOILER, it does) hems, haws, and draws it all out until the last minute. As per usual given algorithmic averages, the film hinges on a scene where Rachel and Greg have a falling out, she wanting to be left alone to quit chemo and die, he wanting her to fight, fight to the end for his sake, all the while they both attempt to squeeze as much liquid out of their faces as they can. (They mostly fail). After this, Greg falls deeper into doldrums (if that is possible) and Rachel disappears from the scene, to be replaced, finally, by Earl (RJ Cyler) the only thing with life that we can see. (Perhaps the sequel will rightfully be titled Fuck Y’all – I’m Earl). The hot girl keeps hounding Greg to finish his movie before Rachel dies, and spurred on, I guess, by his continual demurrals, she asks him to the prom. He accepts, but fakes her out, at the last moment taking the limo curbside at the hospital, invading Rachel’s deathbed, and forcing her to go gently into that good night to the accompaniment of his last masterpiece (scored somehow, as is all of Greg’s life, by Eno). They make up in a way, she goes comatose, eyes wide open, during the credits, and Greg lumbers on into the future, probably making Hollywood films just like this one. (Earl, too cool and embarrassed to really be part of the movie, smokes another cigarette at her wake).

Yes, just like Greg, this movie is a hand lettered love note of insincerity. Greg pretends to have low self-esteem, to be humble and shy, but he is really, like Herzog in his jungle, a seething pit of self-regard, the reflecting mirror being the real death in front of him. Rachel, playing the role of witless helpmate, convinces Greg of his worth (that is, feeds his secretly monstrous ego) and encourages him to apply to Pitt. He gets accepted, and then, after he slips into his funk (triggered, no doubt, by having to make some real art that matters), gets unaccepted, as his grades slip into the funk along with him. His secretly controlling shrew of a mother goes apeshit (masking it brilliantly, just as Greg masks his truth) but no worries; dying girl spends her last moments on earth penning Penn a little death note asking them to take him back, explaining that his lack of effort was her fault, the price paid for friending the doomed. Yes, Greg’s career in sociopathy is capped by this new identity, as an auteur of fluff given weight by the departed soul of another (his film, an avant-garde homage to the dying girl’s pillows, mirrors the climax of Olivier Assayas’s portrait of another failed director salvaging a final project, 1996’s Irma Vep). The only one who sees through this charade (besides your truly, of course) is Earl, the existential hero of the film. (Cyler’s acting fits the reality of the script as no other performance does). Like the Eno score whose ambience gives the film what emotional weight it has, Earl at first seems like mere background, but gradually becomes the substantial center. No more than an observer, buffeted by the winds of chance, Earl acts when and where acting is needed: in the films du Greg; as witness to the narrative of faux suffering played out between Greg and Rachel; and, in a few key moments, as the bearer of reality’s burden (as when he fells Greg with a punch to the gut, an encounter which Greg, typically, describes as “getting into a fight”). Earl has no family other than an older brother who smokes blunts and sits on the porch with his pit bull; he has no motivation except to eat the food others proffer him; he has no anger, and no resentment, toward the pathetic role he has been dealt. Indeed, he silently revels in the naked absurdity of his position, forced to bear witness to the film’s (and by extension all of our) white lies. Earl could have rightfully popped a cap in everyone’s forehead, but he understands they, and we, are not worth the effort. He is merely biding his time, waiting for his own starring moment, which will be years from now, after all these caricatured cuttlefish munchers and pâté eaters have fallen into obscurity. (Is it coincidence that his is the only name enshrined in the title?) At that future moment, Earl will emerge as the true auteur, not of a script as woeful and drained of effort as this, but of the secret film that lies hidden within, the reality of which the likes of Greg, and our dear director, could not bother to imagine. Perhaps in his dying moments, Greg will realize that it was Earl all along – Earl who neutered Greg’s films while making them possible, Earl who pulled the strings to ensure Greg only got into Pitt, Earl who stood tall as the true moose that stomped Greg’s chipmunk face into the ground again and again. As Greg drops his snow globe to the floor in his basement apartment Xanadu, what name will play upon his lips? The name of Earl.

Two stars out of five

Results – Andrew Bujalski (2015)

What do you get when you take two middle-aged men, one a buff gym owner, the other a pudgy schlub, and add a young, hot female personal trainer with attitude? You get Results. What are those results, you ask? They are this movie. A movie, in which three people interact, now graces our screens. How do they interact? This is a comedy, so the stakes are low. The narrative concerns Trevor (Guy Pearce), who owns a gym and is looking to expand to a larger space, and Kat (Cobie Smulders), a younger personal trainer who works with/under Trevor, and who has trouble retaining clients because of her semi-abrasive manner. This snow globe of hilarity is cracked, if not shattered, by Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a lumpy middle-aged man who does little but sit around the house all day, drinking, getting high, and noodling on his guitar. He is not only our entree into the story, but our avatar within this fitness universe. Danny has a lot of free time because, in a freakish stroke of good luck, he recently inherited a massive amount of money. Seemingly knocked from his everyday perch, he now inhabits the world as a cross between a Beckett character and John Belushi in Animal House. He pays anyone he meets hundreds of dollars to accomplish the most meager tasks, just so he doesn’t have to bother with them and/or use his brain. He decides to employ Trevor’s services so he can get into shape, happens to spot Kat, and takes a liking to her. Kat, wanting to gain and keep good clients, likes Danny. She goes to his house periodically and helps him exercise. Danny is not creepy or even overly interested, but we know he likes her. Eventually, as Danny more and more lets it all hang out, Kat happens to spy his smoking equipment laying around, and he invites her back later that evening to partake. She does, and, coupled with some drinking, is soon making out with him, then rounding to third base (at which point the film demurs). Afterward, she has second thoughts, and while not particularly regretful, feels she has to break it off with Danny for professional reasons. Danny then goes back to Trevor, at the same time that Trevor and Kat are reheating as an item (we have heard that they dated back in the day). Trevor has more feelings for her than she for him (seemingly), while Danny still holds on to some desire for her. Kat wants Trevor, but there are some issues having to do with Trevor being angry at Danny for some reason…

You know, this movie is damned hard to remember. In fact, it is completely forgettable. I feel like I’m piecing together the most boring dream narrative ever, or an episode of Passions from eight years ago. To fast forward, by the end of the movie, Kat and Trevor have confessed their love for each other, and joined forces to dominate the fitness market of their locality. Danny, having disappeared halfway through the movie to allow Trevor and Kat to ascend, returns briefly as the would-be satyr / martyr who sacrificed his side of the love triangle for the good of all. He throws a house party, after trying (and succeeding) to buy some sorority girls to party with him, and everyone boogies around as the credits roll (with copious smooching from Kat and Trevor). Who the hell cares? This film doesn’t seem to know what it is. In reality, it is a fairly boring, quite straightforward love story set in the world of personal training (gag). The jokes are very gently observational, like Seinfeld playing Vegas in 2027. To the front end of this film is stitched a fake-out story about buying love and unrequited lust and feeling empty and out of shape, a kind of lower-depths Roxanne in the throes of an identity crisis. The problem is that we are interested in Danny, as he is our representative in the world of beautiful people, and we want him to be a contender. So when the movie discards him, we feel discarded, and further, we feel bored. The zest (and meaning) this film could have had would have come from Danny, clichéd though it may be, fighting his way back into Kat’s heart (or at least making a case for himself). Danny already has a back story that is very flimsy and hard to swallow, so by ditching him halfway through, only to bring him back for the stupid winking ending, the filmmaker shows him for what he is – a device, not a character, and a malfunctioning one at that. The whole thing makes no sense. It’s like Bujalski, while writing the script, arrived at the pivot in the film, the moment of tension in his story, where he would have to actually develop something meaningful out of a bumpy setup, and flinched. Far easier to simply use Danny as the longest meet cute in film history, and then play out another half hour of Kat and Trevor bantering, forming business partnerships, and smooching. The acting is fine – I lay the fault squarely on the shoulders of the director/writer. Yes, the film is gently humorous. Yes, there was nothing offensive about spending 105 minutes watching it. All the same, there is something annoying about the whole enterprise – like the name Cobie Smulders, it gets under your skin, and, pleasant enough though it may be on first encounter, on recollection, one feels more and more disappointed and grumpy. Worry not, though, because unlike the name Cobie Smulders, memories of the film will melt away easily. In 2027, as I’m watching Seinfeld in Vegas, were someone to approach me and ask me about this film, I am confident I will remember not a thing about it… except the name Cobie Smulders.

Two stars out of five

Chappie – Neil Blomkamp (2015)

Chappie has a lot of similarities to Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, at least in terms of style and theme, if not particulars. Both films are set in a dystopian near future where squalor and social strife are rampant. Both deal with misfits who band together to take on arms manufacturers. Both utilize a mixed bag of visual tropes, combining collages of news footage and reportage with action and dramatic sequences seemingly lifted from ’80s blockbusters. District 9 was interesting in parts, but overrated; the tone was uneven, veering from parody and an unlikable protagonist to social-issue tinged dramatics to body horror to straight up actioner with a now tragic protagonist (some would argue this is a character arc, I suppose, but the pacing of the enterprise, jerking moment by moment from one style to another, undercut my sympathies). Much was made of the social allegory that served as the overarching conceit of the film, but I found it sketchy, obvious, and glib. All the same, District 9 worked, and was enjoyable, as the film did deliver the goods during the action sequences. Chappie, on the other hand, works, but like Chappie himself – in a semi-broken, cobbled together way that annoys as much or more than it runs.

Again, we are in tomorrow’s Johannesburg, and again, we are concerned with the inner workings of a weapons manufacturer (run by boss Sigourney Weaver, in a thankless role). This company manufactures robotic police; the main product line, headed by developer Deon (Dev Patel), uses A.I. to provide lithe robots that serve as police shock troops, taking hits for the reduced regular forces that follow behind and clean up after them. These robots are not sentient per se, and do not think for themselves outside of their police duties – they are not Robocop. That role is left to the minority product line, developed solely by ex-soldier Vincent (Hugh Jackman), the office psycho and resident mullet wearer. He has been pushing his solution to rampant violence, the Moose, which looks like a small mech, or a larger version of the Robocop suite. It does not contain a human; rather, a human wears the headset from Brainstorm and runs the mech from a video-game console. (Why the helmet is necessary when joysticks are included is never explained). The Moose is getting no traction within the company, as the local cops see no need for cluster bombs, ballistic missiles, and chain guns within their arsenal. (Canny Americans would see no need for such discretion). The nimble scouts (as I think they’re called) are popular and work well, having tamped down violence in Johannesburg to record lows. Deon, in his free time, has been working on a more fulsome A.I. that will give the scouts consciousness; he wants to try out his work on a broken scout set for destruction, but CEO Weaver, seeing no upside to thinking, feeling shock troops, nixes the plan. Deon goes ahead and takes the droid home anyway, but at this point he is intercepted by the real plot, as “gangsters” Ninja and Yo-landi Visser (playing themselves, essentially) carjack him and his droid, wanting to use it to rob millions of dollars from an armored car to pay back their even more degenerate overlords. The Antwoords force Deon to upload consciousness to the now-repaired robot, and proceed to put the nature vs. nurture debate to a ghetto fabulous test as they become Chappie’s “Mom and Dad.” Mom is all protective and tries, along with Deon, to foster Chappie’s creativity and humanity, whereas Dad simply wants him to mimic his gangster stylings and be willing to do crimes with him. Chappie is torn between these two worlds, but somehow works out his own personality, a kind of wuss outre gangster who won’t use weapons and is only willing to stab people because convinced he’s helping them “nap.” All of this is given an existential boost by the fact of Chappie’s imminent demise; as a broken toy, his battery is low and cannot be recharged, meaning he will die in five days. Thus opportunities for him to explore all his emotions as he wrestles with the meaning of life and the question of why a benevolent Deon would bring him into this world only to let him die. (Oh, the humanity). There is a lot of death that finally goes down, as evil Hugh Jackman, now wise to the power of corporate espionage and inter-office skulduggery, uploads destructive viruses to the scouts, and leaves the Moose as the only option to deal with Chappie, now enemy number one as he has partaken in Dad’s armored car heist. Chappie, now human enough to compromise his integrity to gain a new body, eventually does make use of high-octane firepower, and although the Moose goes on to kill many, including Deon, Mom, and a slew of usefully slain baddies, Chappie manages to both render the Moose moot, as well as provide new bodies for all his dead or dying peeps. Of course, they now have to exist as robotic versions of themselves, but that’s apparently not a problem for anyone.

Sorry for that description, which feels both skimpy and overly-elaborate at the same time. Perhaps now you don’t need to see the film! There is not a lot to recommend about the movie, and I must warn that many will probably find Chappie himself as annoying as Jar-Jar (who he does sound like). I found him a little more likable, kind of like Johnny Five’s clueless foreign cousin (Balki Three?). The amount of swearing and violence – Chappie gets set on fire, gets his arm sawed off, and everyone in Blomkamp’s films tend to explode like massive blood squibs, a trait inherited from his mentor, Peter Jackson – probably rules out this being a film with family appeal, but the themes are too soft and the portrayals too cartoony for adults to sink their teeth into. The minor bits of the preposterous nag. For instance, how can Chappie transfer his consciousness with a cranial cap designed for a human head? Why does Hugh Jackman work for this company? (His product stinks, his attitude is crap, and we expect, given the intro news footage, that he is indeed a competing entrepreneur). The answer to such questions, of course, is because the plot demands it. District 9 had many such problems as well, but in both cases, these instances of lameness don’t drag the whole enterprise down. No, it is the lameness of the larger questions that ultimately sink Chappie. The film is pitched, at its most serious, as a consideration of the nature of A.I., and, by extension, human consciousness. Hugh Jackman is suspicious of software brains, and believes humans should always be in control (for reasons both megalomaniacal as well as philosophical). Deon is obviously an A.I. fan. The film seems to be agnostic… until the final reel, when it becomes apparent that all consciousness is just blowin’ in the wind, and will, like undemanding dandelion fluff, happily settle where it can. Better anything than death! We expect, as Deon is transferred into a droid’s body at the moment of his demise, that he’ll at least have a qualm or two about the transformation. Perhaps a shudder of horror, or an “oops, that was one upload too many.” But no. He takes a gander at himself, and is immediately good to go, thrilled to still be in lovely ol’ Johannesburg no matter the cost. He quickly sets about saving Chappie by porting him to a new body, and then they take off together, hiding out until they can virtually seize control of an automated robotics factory (someone forgot to activate Microsoft Security Center) and start churning out pals. The first of which is Mommy, of course. New bodies for everyone! Not a problem, and not even a beat reserved to consider the ramifications, or the opposition, mulleted though it may be. So much for the human. All that is interesting about this conclusion is that it serves as a kind of prophetic image of robotic Marxism, with the workers seizing control of the means of production… to reproduce! Perhaps Marxism really needs the singularity for its actualization – workers and owners, masters and slaves, fused into one neat little product with soul.

Two stars out of five

’71 – Yann Demange (2015)

When I was an undergrad, an essay, graded C, was returned to me with a one word criticism: vague. This has always haunted me, as it was a horrible piece of critical feedback, but it also brilliantly performed its own criticism. I have always tried to do better, and I will spell out the vagaries of ’71, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be vague. This film, which wound up on the ten best list of several critics whose opinion I respect, deals with a green British soldier sent into Belfast with his regiment during the Troubles in the year 1971. I don’t know much about the Troubles, and I came out of the film knowing as much as I did when I went in – so how historically accurate this historical action film is, I cannot say. At the same time, accuracy need only be judged, in this case, by the set decoration and costuming, and not by the dramatics, as this could just as easily be the solo edition of The Warriors, or any other film of that genre (get home alive?), reset in drearier climes. The lack of historical detail, or even of historical overview, would not nettle if I had felt anything during the screening. Tension? Surprise? Excitement? There are some well-staged sequences, without doubt, especially the bombing of a pub and our protagonist’s noise-induced hearing loss, but even in such cases, it is hard to care. The reason for this is that our protagonist, Gary Hook (Private Hook, one supposes), is about as generic as can be, with little to no backstory, who barely opens his mouth for the entirety of the film. Yes, there are magical films with such protagonists; indeed, there are some films that are stronger because of such a setup. I only wish this were one of them. Hook is as bland as boiled, mashed turnips, eaten without butter or salt, and washed down with a draught of milk. He never opines about anything, and is humanized only by being granted an apparently orphaned younger brother to say goodbye to as the film opens, and to rescue from his meanie orphanage at the film’s conclusion. The plot itself makes The Warriors seem complex and high toned in comparison. Hook goes with his regiment to provide support to the police while they extract a suspect from a Catholic neighborhood. His young C.O. stupidly takes away their riot gear, wanting to seem friendlier to the population. A riot promptly breaks out as the extraction proceeds, and Hook and one of his confreres have to plow through the rioters in an attempt to retrieve a military rifle swiped by a young boy. Away from their unit, they get beat up, and then Hook’s pal is shot point blank in the head. The rest of the unit hightails it out of there, not realizing until much later that Hook has been left behind. Now Hook has to avoid the Provisional IRA and try to get out of the neighborhood and back into British hands.

Which is, sadly, not so hard. The main problem with this plot is that, within the genre of “get home alive,” getting home is usually quite difficult. Home is a long ways away, perhaps, across hostile turf populated by vast and divergent quantities of threat. Here, “home” is simply anywhere outside of the Catholic neighborhood which, given some small help in orientation, takes Hook approximately 8 hours or so to exit. So, to make his escape a problem, the filmmakers introduce a variety of plot devices, the main one being the double cross. You see, now that he’s been in Catholic territory, the Brits want him dead for some reason too. Hook’s unit, and his C.O., are subordinate to three scummy “undercover” guys who are also apparently ranking officers, and these guys are hot to “rescue” Hook quickly before he can get back into regular army hands, all the better to execute him. Now, did the filmmakers feel like bothering with some kind of reason, historically rooted or no, for this double cross? Is there, for instance, a good reason for these “undercover” officers to see Hook as a political liability for any of the operations they are already involved in? We wouldn’t know, as their “operations” are seemingly comprised of riding around in cars together, looking seedy, and meeting contacts in the IRA, who they threaten. So, for the first half of the movie, Hook stumbles around, trying to avoid those he knows want to kill him, and in the second half, he stumbles around trying to avoid getting killed by people he knows. The audience never understands why Hook is so important, nor why he needs to be taken care of by the undercovers, so it plays as a rather cynical device. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that this would go unnoticed, as the baddies are themselves cynics. At least, there is no other way to evaluate their actions – they come off as sub-par versions of the cynical sleazoids in Julian Jarrold’s contribution to the Red Riding trilogy, 1974. The difference being, in 1974 we do come to understand the exact nature of the sleaziness, and the cynicism, and some of the reasons why, although perhaps not the full scope of everything until the final film. ’71 is all beady eyes, bad haircuts, and sweaty, rather unconvincing choke holds that take long enough to allow contrivances to blossom and rescues to be had. Given that we know little about Hook, and less about his foes, the action itself, no matter how well staged, becomes trivial – and it doesn’t help that the solution to the climax is very contrived indeed. Thus the ending not only lacks catharsis, it lacks weight – or rather, it lands with a pretentious leaden thud. We are supposed to feel Hook’s repugnance at having to face his would-be assassin in the office of the ultimate military authority on the matter (unnamed, natch). We should take umbrage at this righteous young solider’s trust being trammeled upon, how he is turned into an angry cynic himself by being sold down the river by said military authority. His own catharsis denied, Hook (we are given to understand) is discharged, stopping on the way out of town to pick up the kid brother at the orphanage. Thence, to the sweet hereafter and into the sunset. The whole film is reduced to a massive cliche – although reduced is perhaps too strong a word: naive and honorable lad turned sour through sad personal experience of the political realities of the world. Yes, no one likes being used as a pawn. And no one is pretty much who Hook is. A cynical film about cynics which decries the causes of cynicism! Is there any thrill to be had in such reflexivity? The answer is no.

Two 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