23 August 2010

Bad Influences, Bad Personalities

Exit Through the Gift Shop

What begins as an interesting documentary about how Banksy and other famous graffiti artists make their art soon turns into a semi-mockumentary that plays into people’s desire to believe the art world is too easily manipulated and therefore something they don’t have to pay attention to; that, in fact, they would be idiots to pay any attention to it at all. What they should pay attention to is Banksy, who doesn’t credit himself or anybody else as the director of this film, but who appears on-screen to speak to us from the shadows, if that’s really him, next to a monkey mask with ping pong balls for eyes.  

Much of the film takes place in Los Angeles, which Banksy sees as an art-deprived suburb of Disneyland. When he brings his site-specific op-ed cartooning to a Los Angeles gallery, the film acts like this is a revelation to the locals, who (presumably after years of taking in everything from Ed Ruscha to Raymond Pettibon to Mike Kelley) are easily wowed by a live elephant.  

We are told the film was originally meant to be assembled from thousands of hours of footage shot by a kooky Frenchman. The film’s rejection of this footage as incoherent and unsalvageable is a normalizing strategy that forces literal meaning on us by finding a regular documentary inside a mess—we are supposed to believe that because of someone else’s incompetence, Banksy had no choice but to make something anyone could understand. Banksy’s own coy self-definitions, for which he apologizes in a recessive friendly-macho way, pull him into the back of the frame and out of the film. His will to absence makes the monumental daring of his work all the more impressive, especially since it’s a pleasant kind of art that brightens the urban landscape and cheers people up.     

Chase

Twenty folding chairs in an un-airconditioned screening room on a humid night in Chelsea. The artist is present. She is Liz Magic Laser (her real name—the question must come up a lot), here to introduce Chase, her two-and-a-half hour film of Bertolt Brecht’s Man Equals Man, a play first performed in Germany in 1926.

Laser shot Chase on digital video in the ATM vestibules of banks in New York City. She worked without permission, gaining access like anyone else would, by swiping a bank card to open the door. In the film, her actors perform next to customers using the ATMs, among security guards and cleaning ladies. The actors declaim Brecht’s words while bystanders, a built-in audience, make withdrawals and deposits or wait around. Usually people ignore the actors, but some, roped in, play along for a moment before they leave. Whenever a new customer opens the door, a burst of unmixed sound from the outside world floods in, then the door closes and cuts it off again. One actor, Max Woertendyke, struts and works the crowd like he was born to act in foyers backed by a chorus of beeping machines. At one point, without breaking character, Woertendyke nonchalantly takes a Gummi Bear from a package a bystander is holding and eats it.

Laser gets a lot of good angles in these small spaces no one who isn’t homeless or an architect ever thinks about or studies. She does it without resorting to off-kilter framing or wide-angle lenses—the spaces are not distorted or dramatized, and the film is free of production value and art direction. Another of the many strengths of this brilliantly conceived film is how Laser does not have to fuzz-out any of the corporate logos that fill the backgrounds, because this is art for an art gallery, which is granted a freedom the movies and TV don’t have and should demand. Chase shows us the world as we actually see it, festooned with advertising that isn’t product placement.  

Each actor performs separately in a different ATM lobby. Laser cuts the film as if they were together, talking across the void of the ATM monitors. (She explained this by mentioning Eisenstein.) Much of the cutting doesn’t match, the sound cuts don’t match, and some of the acting, like the camerawork, is amateurish. The actors, alone in their vestibules, never quite agree on the pronunciations of certain names, including that of the play’s protagonist, Galy Gay. It doesn’t matter. Chase is one of those rare films that benefits from its flaws and limitations, getting better and more interesting as it goes along.

Brecht’s play, which takes place in the northern reaches of a farcical, Kipling-esque India (“where the tiger asks the jaguar about his teeth”), attempts to demonstrate how soldiers are created. The simple raw material of human personality is easily broken down, Brecht says, and it readily adapts to combat and killing. Part of Man Equals Man is set near a treasure-filled pagoda, which may have suggested an ATM to Laser. One side effect of having her actors perform opposite ATMs is that we get to see how much money they have in their bank accounts (not much) when they make withdrawals to use cash as a prop. That’s not something that happens in Salt. Here, the money is on the screen.


Sex and the City 2

A group of Americans, weighed down with equipment, is airlifted into a Middle Eastern country on a pointless mission. Once there, they live in a protected environment separated from the local population. On their forays away from the karaoke nights at their base, they screw up everything they attempt, alienating the natives and getting more confused the longer they stay. For reasons impossible to understand, their time in this country drags on and on, yet they can’t seem to end it. Finally expelled from this quagmire of their own making, they leave behind a mess and some money for the help.

Just as there had to be a second Iraq war after the unfinished business of the first, there had to be a Sex and the City 2. For in the first, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) did not get what she really wanted, just like the first Bush Administration did not get what it really wanted in the first war.  

In the first movie, Carrie pretended to learn that a big diamond ring wasn’t what love and marriage were all about. In the second, she gets her ring, a sinister black diamond symbolizing the war-for-oil aspects of this shameless movie. Carrie’s pyrrhic victory, a consolation prize, caps a movie that is a form of debasement before the Arab world. It shows Americans as grasping whores who make endless justifications for their lameness and greed, who are bored with their lives yet incapable of learning. The film is a low point in the history of American pop culture, but to mock specific scenes in it would be a waste of time. One image lingers: Sarah Jessica Parker shoving Pringles potato chips in her mouth on an airplane.

I Am Love

Of all the things that are influential about Hitchcock’s films, who would have guessed that in the end it would be the hair that was the most influential of all? It proves the triviality of influence, something I Am Love goes out of its way to make us understand. Whether striving for a Viscontian lushness, an Antonionian loneliness, a Sirkian catharsis, or a Hitchcockian precision with hair, I Am Love revels in notions of provenance, which it relates to qualities of real experience and feelings of true luxury, pleasures the film lets us know few people truly understand, even if they can afford them.

One of the main ways it does that is through food. The meals prepared by the young locavore chef, the adulterous lover of Tilda Swinton’s married Emma, are transcendent, enigmatic, yummy. While the two make love in a meadow by his organic farm, we get closeups of bugs that are reminiscent of the life-changing prawns he served Emma, not ants at a picnic or worms in an apple.

“The Recchis are exploiters!” someone blurts in this movie about the family of upper-class Italian industrialists it dismantles. It shouts what it has only partially managed to show. Emma’s husband, for instance, a cold fish who quickly turns on her when the time comes, does callous things like change the channel when she’s trying to watch the movie Philadelphia on TV. That way we know he’s a real bastardo.  

The film is too much in love with beauty to be anything but pretty, and by the end it’s corrupted by the system it indicts. Before a bizarre, inappropriate happy ending featuring Emma and her chef curled up in a cave, Swinton has effectively left the film, running out in a track suit like she’s late to the set of the next Narnia movie.

The Kids Are All Right

I have not been everywhere, and I have never lived in Los Angeles. But as far as I know, there is no corner of the universe where a guy like the unmarried restaurateur played by Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right would dump a girl like the crazy-haired hostess played by Yaya Dacosta for the married lesbian played by Julianne Moore. It boggles the mind more than The Last Airbender in 3D.

Let’s examine this character, Paul, whom Ruffalo plays. Paul has such an air of manly skill about him he makes the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft look like Truman Capote. He owns a motorcycle he fixes himself. He listens to X in an old truck he drives. He has his own house with a tiered backyard and his own restaurant where he is the head chef. He grows food for his restaurant on his own organic farm; when he picks vegetables there he politely ignores the come-ons of a hot helper girl who wants to roll around in the chard with him.   

Even though Paul shrugs off the farm girl, we are supposed to see him as a sexual opportunist. Paul is nice, and sometimes even wise, and he genuinely likes the two teenagers who were conceived by the married couple Jules and Nic (Annette Bening) with sperm he donated years ago. But why is he so nice? To what end? Why is he so pleasant and helpful to these people who were strangers to him until just the other day?   

The Kids Are All Right joins a line of recent movies that portray unmarried men over forty as lonely, confused, and adrift—appearances to the contrary notwithstanding—because they don’t have families of their own. Evidently it is inconceivable—excuse the pun—to the makers of American feature films that a man could be content without a wife and children.  

On the higher end of this bachelor scale we find George Clooney in Up in the Air. He may seem suave, carefree, and capable, but no. He is a husk, only going through the motions as he flies around the country ruining people’s lives. He, too, will end up staring through a window at someone else’s happy family. On the low end of the scale we find Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Maybe it’s better not to think about him.

Before I get too personal I should look at other aspects of The Kids Are All Right. This heartwarming family comedy is the first film I have ever seen in which t-shirt choice so thoroughly dictates character. At times the movie seems like satire, but by the end, when Bening’s crotchety Nic blasts Paul with a “go make your own family, buster, and take your stinking paws off mine,” it reveals itself as only slightly less conservative than Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

Strange lapses puzzled me. Why do we never learn what college young Joni is going to, even though it keeps coming up and eventually we even visit this unnamed institution? Is it to make the film more generic? Why is it never established that Jules has used Paul’s hairbrush before Nic goes into his bathroom and finds the incriminating tangle of hair? Is it important that the film can’t mention in passing the legal status of gay marriage in California (illegal when the film was made), or would that have been tendentious and therefore not about how hard marriage is for everyone, and therefore not about how everyone is the same? And why does a bartender, who has just poured Nic a glass of wine, ask her if she’s going to drink it? In my experience, once it’s poured it’s a done deal. In California, do they pour it back in the bottle if you’ve just silently realized you’re kind of an alcoholic?

Dogtooth

Stills and trailers made Dogtooth look like an art film starring white people posing for emptied-out art photos influenced by Fairfield Porter paintings. It’s not like that. It’s something more harrowing and exciting. Dogtooth is simple and restricted, maybe in the end confinement wins out over austerity, but it is not a frosty film about pent-up people who can’t show their emotions. It’s more about people who aren’t allowed to understand anything.  

Dogtooth is a Greek film directed by somebody named Yorgos Lanthimos. I would see anything else by him after seeing this amazing film, the best of the summer. With much less at its disposal, it out-Cronenbergs Cronenberg by way of a sunny creepiness that insists on its normality even as it turns incestuous and bloody. Primarily about language and the family, it should be seen by homeschoolers everywhere.

The mother and father in Dogtooth restrict their children—two daughters and a son in their late teens—to their house and yard. The kids know nothing of the world outside, and have been taught that any word that describes something not found at home—motorway, gun—has a meaning from the natural world—wind, flower, bird. The teens gets together to watch videos on TV, but they only watch home movies of their younger selves; as they sit on the couch, they mouth along to things they said years ago. When they do good, their parents reward them with stickers they put on their headboards.  

The outside world enters in the form of a young woman the father hires to have sex with the son. This goes badly: she ends up beaten in the head with a VCR wielded by the father, who curses her: “I hope your kids have bad influences and develop bad personalities!” The father (Christos Stergioglu), a fat Grinch who looks like he has no business being in movies, is boring yet scary, especially when he mouths words to his wife in the kitchen so the kids won’t hear, has his daughters cut his toenails, or explains that “in two months your mother will give birth to two more children and a dog.” The actors who play the daughters, Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni, deserve special recognition for their willingness to do anything, including frenzied dancing inspired by Flashdance and inter-family bathtub groping.


A Short History of Cahiers du cinéma

Cinephile reviewers attacked this slim book by Emilie Bickerton, a writer for the New Left Review, when it was published by Verso several months ago. They justifiably seized on errors of fact, some of which showed an unwillingness to check simple things; others revealed an unfamiliarity with the history of cinema in general. In tracing the decline of Cahiers du cinéma from aesthetic radicalism through political radicalism and into market-driven acquiescence and subsequent irrelevance, Bickerton does not appear to have seen many of the films she brings up.  

Calling John Ford’s Two Rode Together by translating its French title into English—she called it The Two Cavaliers in advance copies of the book, which were corrected before publication—tipped off movie-loving reviewers that there was something wrong. Defending that mistake as a proofreading error, as Bickerton did in response to a negative review in Film Comment, did not help her case, especially since equally odd mistakes stand in the book as published. She names many French New Wave films using titles they have never been called outside of imdb.com—Godard’s Vivre sa Vie is It’s My Life and Chabrol’s Les godelureaux and La Rupture are Wise Guys and The Breach. (She also dismisses Chabrol’s 1970s films as “poor” apparently without having seen them herself, because someone at Cahiers said that about them at one point, and Truffaut backed him up.)  

She has to use a footnote to describe the plot of Godard’s Weekend, citing somebody else to explain a seminal film she could have easily seen, and should have before writing this book. She describes Alfred Hitchcock as an exile in Hollywood like Fritz Lang, equating a career move on Hitchcock’s part with Lang’s flight from the Nazis. Bickerton’s most boneheaded goof will cause spit takes all over the world, but especially in France: she implies that Grand Illusion was made under Vichy. By the end, she has described Arnaud Desplechin as an ’80s filmmaker and Jean-Jacques Annaud as one from the ’90s. I ignore her errors of emphasis and tone only because they’re not as fun to list.

Does it sound like I don’t like this book? Because that’s not the case. I like it very much—it was completely engrossing—and I think anyone interested in the French New Wave, and especially anyone interested in film criticism, should read it. And I think cinephiles offended by it, including the cinephile in me, should get over it and take heed. Bickerton’s basic message—that starting in the ’80s film criticism caved in without a fight—is undeniable.

Bickerton writes that Cahiers du cinéma started life in the early 1950s with a high-minded goal: “the destruction of prevailing value systems and the elevation of the film maudit.” Thirty years later, as “various factors combined to create an environment that was hostile to the free exploration and critique of cinema outside the market logic,” the magazine devolved into praising M. Night Shyamalan movies as if they were today’s undiscovered artistic equivalents of films by Hitchcock and Hawks, side-stepping at the same time any kind of politicized readings that might counter their appeal.

Bickerton quotes Jean-Louis Comolli, an editor at the magazine during its most radical phase in the ’60s and ’70s. Film criticism and filmmaking, he wrote, must make “a political choice to stop seeing the audience as an inert, amorphous mass open to all sorts of manipulation by advertising,” and instead must “bank on the existence of an audience that is lucid” and “ultimately as creative as the filmmaker.” Bickerton argues that Cahiers switched tactics as the film industry changed during the Reagan-Star Wars era, dumbing down in order to please a new kind of consumer and to drive flagging sales.  

Only Serge Daney, the magazine’s most vital film critic since the days of Bazin and Truffaut, held fast, admitting that while “the times themselves [had] grown more feeble, in terms of thought,” film critics still had to discover and explain “what was cinema’s ‘specificity,’ given the proliferation of images through advertising and television. . . . And how should the critic conceive of his or her role within this transformed landscape of images?”  

How many film critics have taken up this challenge since Daney’s death? In her sections on him, Bickerton points a way forward. To make up for the fact-checking errors, Verso could show a real commitment to a genuinely radical film criticism by publishing Daney’s work in English translation. For a long time, his English-language readers have had to rely on blogs collecting stray translations. That would be a start.


Winter’s Bone

This harsh film, set in gray Ozark forests, represents a step forward in screen depictions of the rural South, and in the career of its writer-director, Debra Granik. The stripped and collapsed world brought to the screen in Winter’s Bone, which was adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, stands in stark contrast to representations of similar territory in indie films from the Bush era, like the odious Junebug (2005). Junebug painted small-town Southerners as humble and lovable God-fearing folks, gentle losers even if they were racist nuts. In Winter’s Bone, people are poor and dangerous, which is to say they have dignity. Plus they’re all on meth, the driver of their economy.  

All the performances in this film work. The teenage lead (Jennifer Lawrence), a semi-parentless Renée Zellweger look-alike with no future, carries the film easily. The mountainous, unlistening crime patriarch, who rules from a huge shed that’s like a barn for monster trucks, comes across as intractable, ignorant, and deadly. He didn’t talk much, but he was convincing. Even the guy playing the most thankless role, a weak-willed state cop, was good. But it is Dale Dickey as Merab, the wife of the criminal patriarch, who steals the film. With her deeply lined face and mean, squinty eyes, Merab cowers and thrives in this methland, scaring the shit out of anyone who dares to asks her a question. It is a cliché for an actress in a countrified film to look as hard as the country where the movie is set, but Dickey’s performance is something else. She looks as choppy and blasted as the terrain, but she doesn’t slip into Tobacco Road parody mode.

Cyrus

A drab comedic love triangle between a mother (Marisa Tomei, a sexy chipmunk), her son (Jonah Hill, a poison toad), and her new boyfriend (John C. Reilly, a catcher’s mitt). Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass, Cyrus was produced by Ridley and Tony Scott to atone for their sins while showing support for a younger pair of director brothers.

Cyrus depicts the lower rungs of media employment as lackluster and low-paying—Reilly’s character is some kind of TV editor and lives in the shabbiest apartment I’ve seen in movies for a long time. Wherever it goes, it is excessively drab for a movie set in LA—a peach nightgown Tomei wears is the same color as her skin and the walls at her place—but it lacks the mortifying intensity of an Elaine May movie, which it at times seems to be going for and really needed.


Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno

This documentary partially re-assembles a big-budget, ambitiously experimental film Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, left unfinished after suffering a heart attack on location in the Auvergne in 1964. The film, L’enfer, meant to push cinema to the breaking point, broke Clouzot instead—his heart gave out while he was shooting a lesbian kissing scene between Romy Schneider and pert Dany Carrel. Whenever Clouzot’s footage takes over, the film comes to glorious, decadent life; other times, it gets bogged down in talking-head interviews with the original crew and cringe-worthy reenactments featuring two uncomfortable actors on a soundstage.

L’enfer, an international co-production meant to top Hitchcock, adopts techniques from lurid Italian genre films and the surrealistic avant-garde; it looks like a more starkly modern Mario Bava or Kenneth Anger movie. To make the water in a lake to appear blood-red on film, Clouzot’s actors are painted green or blue like real-life Na’vi—in 1964, Clouzot had already exposed the superfluity of CGI. Much of the footage consists of camera tests of the alluring Romy Schneider. Her skin spangles and glitters while dots of light roll and spin in her eyes. She exhales cigarette smoke backwards, appearing to breathe it in—smoking in reverse, she inhales smoke from the air. In a purple slip, wearing purple lipstick, she licks her lips with a purple tongue. Trying to find “the improbable colors of madness,” Clouzot predicted a lurid psychedelic world still three or four years away.

The soundtrack, edited together from the film’s electro-acoustical music cues and a musique concrète score, competes with kinetic-art-inspired lens effects that bend figures into primitive sculptures seen in funhouse mirrors. Several long scenes are cut together. In one, the film’s protagonist (Serge Reggiani), Schneider’s jealous husband, desperately follows her from a twisting highway above the lake as she gyrates back and forth on water skis in the foreground—mesmerizing footage from a film that was never made. It calls into question the category of the “late masterpiece,” usually seen as radically austere and stripped-down. It makes you want to see other excessive late-career works plotted in the 1960s and never made, like Fritz Lang’s Death of a Career Girl and Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, which in a reworked version became 1972’s Frenzy, not exactly a sane and mild film, but not the freak-out Hitchcock planned.


Around a Small Mountain

Somber or apprehensive moods or tones in this movie about summertime, the countryside, clothes, and the little agonies of failing circus performers save Around a Small Mountain from being too light, making it strange and buoyant. The way Jane Birkin pauses in a sunny graveyard demonstrates Jacques Rivette’s interest in stopping his performers short at moments of reflection. Rivette does this in an unobtrusive, subtle way within simple long takes that do not call attention to themselves the way they do in the work of younger arthouse directors. Similarly, the film’s lack of a music score isn’t noticeable until Pierre Allio’s Tati-esque jazz returns over the end credits, after a final shot of the moon, large in the frame, that makes it look balanced in the air, with a weight we can feel.

It is to the honor of Sergio Castellitto that he appears in Rivette’s late films. With his Humphrey Bogart-Leonard Cohen looks, this classic-style film star shows great aplomb even when confused or doing nothing. He contrasts stillness with abrupt motion, enacting the mental agility of Rivette’s mise-en-scene. The way he pulls out a chair and sits down mirrors the way he talks and listens. He wears a different suit in every scene, which he carries off more impressively than Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe changes in I Am Love, and which, as in that movie, also seem to be part of the point. Here it is an entertaining point, free from histrionics or indictments of society. A nighttime scene in front a café puts Castellito and others on an impromptu stage and goes through several on-off light changes in one shot, plunging the actors in and out of silhouette, reminding us that simple effects in movies are the most sublime.
 
Inception

Something about Inception confused me. I know it’s a head scratcher in general, but after I saw it there was one thing I wanted to understand more than anything else: How did Christopher Nolan come up with the name “Dom Cobb”?  

Was it because “Dom Cobb” sounds like something you say when you’re just waking up but you’re not really awake yet? And you’re making that jaw motion where you open and close your mouth like a fish trying to talk while you mumble some incoherent “om, om” syllable because your lips are sticking together? And the person next to you goes, “What was that, honey? Dom Cobb?”    

Maybe Dom Cobb is a metaphorical name like Ariadne or Mal, other characters in this turgid crowd pleaser, and I just didn’t know what the significance was. A lot of people who have seen it will tell you that Inception is one big metaphor—a movie about making movies, about how movies work, about what it’s like to see movies, and how close they are to dreams and how life is a like a dream and like a movie, too. “It’s a movie about movies!” these fans insist, giving special emphasis to the word movies the way sometimes people used to say something meaningful was about life. Then they tell you how it was about movies. What they don’t tell you is that it’s about bad movies.  

“Always imagine new places,” Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) instructs, but Inception refuses to do that. It presents instantly recognizable non-places, swanky hotel bars in world capitals, vistas from James Bond movies with skiing in them, post-apocalyptic landscapes from comic books. Suffused with an ahistorical sensibility, this insta-remake of Shutter Island combines the washy metaphysics of Nicholas Roeg films with Where Eagles Dare—a range of unsmiling British unfun. Terrible dialogue fights to the death with bombastic music meant to pound a “militarized subconscious” into further submission, which it does.

Inception succeeds in convincing us for two and a half hours that somehow our dreams and lives are exactly like all the bad action movies we have ever seen. The film has none of the vivid unpredictable banality of dreams or life. Instead it has the kind of banality found in Speed 2—it puts dreamers on cruise control, lays them out on gurneys, runs them up and down elevators. I can’t recount the plot of Inception or tell you what it means, but I can tell you this: People whose dream movie is a bad movie about dreams that are like bad movies are fucked.

The section on Dogtooth has been corrected to reflect that Dogtooth is not Yorgos Lanthimos’ first film. We’re grateful to Mark Asch of The L Magazine for pointing this out.

Image: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (d. Serge Bromberg and Ruxanda Medrea, France, 2009)

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