10 August 2009

This Planet Is Not Yours to Rule

Film Column 4

Funny People 

The pathos of comedians used to be that they were funny because they wanted everyone to love them. They were motivated by their psychic wounds, their difficult personalities, their inability to tolerate the world as they found it. Gags and jokes were a way to triumph over brute physical reality and the intractability of the human race.

In this movie, comedians beg for something new and different: “Love me because I’m not that funny,” they plead. “Love me because I’m only funny enough to be on a sit-com. Love me because the movies I’m in aren’t any good.” “And by the way,” Apatow adds, “aren’t my daughters cute? These are my real daughters!”

The movie is lugubrious, like a Chekhov play about comedians in Los Angeles, a Chekhov play with hundreds of dick jokes, in which Jimmy Fallon might show up in a cameo as himself.

A side effect of Funny People is that now I am prepared for the death of Adam Sandler. It’s an eventuality I hadn’t thought about much. Really I didn’t think about it much while I was watching the film. As Sandler swam alone in the pool on his big lonely estate where he thought he was dying, mostly what I thought was, “I wish I had a pool like that. I want to swim alone in the morning.” If I was supposed to question the values that led his character to that mansion and that pool, I didn’t. I wanted the pool and I wanted to be alone in it, instead of in a theater watching this long movie that had all the sincerity of a Dean Martin roast and none of the laughs.   

Away We Go

This mild, charmless comedy is not the provocation critics made it out to be. Reading their reviews, you’d think they wanted to throw ink at the screen, like the fascists who went to the premiere of L’Age d’Or in 1930. “Smug! Cynical!” they screamed at Away We Go, like two out of three movies released aren’t smug and cynical. I guess they expected whatever the opposite of smug-and-cynical is.

Even if it’s not so terrible, the “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” scene stands out for its terribleness. It’s probably unplayable by any actors, and Sam Mendes does nothing to help. He directs it like he’s never seen a film he didn’t make. Coming after scenes of great familial love in a house full of adopted, multiracial children, it is confusing. Determining its intentions is a fool’s game. It is mysterious and offensive, but not like L’Age d’Or.

In the “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” scene, Melanie Lynskey, playing a character named Munch, has to dance around a stripper pole in a bar, slowly and fully clothed, while her husband (Chris Messina) delivers a maudlin speech to the film’s protagonist about her miscarriage. The Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” plays as Lynskey silently twirls around the pole with what is either a faraway look of deep loss in her eyes or an intense stare of abiding married love.

It turns out Munch and her husband, who we thought had it all, don’t have it all. They have failed to have a child of their own; those other kids aren’t enough. “She ain’t got nothin’ at all,” sing the Velvets. The film builds up this attractive, fun-loving couple, then tears them down. We believed in their happiness, which was a sham, and now we are asked to believe in their emptiness, which is pathetic. How about if we don’t believe in either? This scene punctures the film and lets the air out, not a good thing to happen to a road movie.

Whatever Works

If people over-think a film written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, they don’t think about a film written by Woody Allen at all. Woody Allen turns critics into people who honk their horn as soon as the light turns green. Once they go through the intersection, they forget they’re the kind of people who honk like that.

No matter what Woody Allen does in a new film, people say the same things about it they said about the last film he made, and the one before that. The reviews write themselves; you switch out the title and the names of a couple of the actors.

Whatever Works is a vituperative, hostile film that mellows after a great painful-looking shot of Larry David lying on top of a woman he’s landed on trying to commit suicide by jumping out a window. David does not play Woody Allen in this Whatever Works, which was what everyone was afraid of. He plays one of those disheveled, scowling old men you see limping down Houston Street, the kind who makes you think, “How does that guy have an apartment? I can’t afford anything and that guy gets to live here?”

If the film’s subject is happiness in a hopeless world, Allen and David express it only through disgruntlement and contempt—happiness is ignored, like it is in real life. What film of recent years has blasted conservative America as thoroughly and relentlessly as this one? It’s an unending string of insults and a summation of the last period of American history, which sent Woody Allen into exile like Chaplin.

A scene set in Madame Tussauds—a light, throwaway scene filled with complaining—contrasts wax statues of George W. Bush and other political creeps with living-breathing people from George Bush’s America, who as the film progresses change for the better by coming up against New York City. If this is a fantasy, so be it. Allen is right, they are better off living as New Yorkers, New York changes people for the better, that’s all there is to it as far as he’s concerned. It takes a lot of not caring what other people think to make a film as mean, nit-picky, unlovable, and unfair as this one, which is the opposite of Funny People in every way.


John Hughes

John Hughes was only 59 when he died on a Manhattan street last week but he’d been retired as a director since 1991, and really since 1989—for twenty years. It is not a fitting coda to his work that his last credit was a pseudonymous one as one of the writers of Drillbit Taylor. His directorial career spans the mid- to late-eighties, the sequel period from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to Ghostbusters II. His movies are remembered and loved because in a bleak period they really stood out. They were warm and they gave young actors and character actors well-written, endearing parts to play. They believed in people, not concepts.

By the time he was making Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986 (his best film), he was already letting lesser directors handle films he should have made himself—Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. Those films are good, but they suffered because Hughes was directing them by proxy. By the time he made Uncle Buck in 1989 (his last good movie), he had in some sense given up and had cynically if good-naturedly descended into writing and producing but not directing childish movies like the Home Alone series and Baby’s Day Out. He was moving backwards in human development from the adolescence of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club into films whose logical extension should have ended in movies about cute amoebas, or eggs and sperm.

Young actors thrived in the parts he wrote for them; they became definitive as teenage types: brain, basket case, princess, athlete, and criminal. But the Brat Pack was a generation of underachievers Hughes and the movies abandoned. They are loved because they are only semi-iconic, not stars, people lost to Hollywood. Jennifer Grey and Charlie Sheen, lesser lights of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, are the real poster children for the Hughes oeuvre, not Molly Ringwald. Sheen’s character doesn’t even have a name. Grey, as Ferris’s unhappy sister who lives in his shadow, tries to make up for that by having two. She’s Jean but she calls herself Shauna.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

This second Transformers film is garbage, a big pile of useless scrap and refuse in every way, but there are shots in it of plastic beauty which use Megan Fox’s stress-tested porno face like an element in a James Rosenquist painting of car parts and spaghetti. But so what? James Rosenquist paintings already exist.

The film satisfies a young man’s desire to make and build machines at the same time as it tells him that he’ll never be allowed to. It’s not just that the film turns its audience into passive viewers of pseudo-mechanical spectacle, it’s not just that the main kid in it doesn’t do anything more than sprinkle fairy dust on a machine to make it move again, which subverts the idea of what a machine is. The very nature of the Autobots and Decepticons is non-mechanical, they’re form-shapes, CGI-generated non-things. They have no materiality, they’re junky and fragile. The film dangles them every which way, like trinkets hanging from a rear-view mirror in a car crash, just to yank them away. Or it holds them over a crib like mommy.

The US Army, so present in the film, does nothing. The film is entirely militaristic but the Army is useless. The Autobots control everything. Army men fill up the screen, which would seem empty without them. This is a film in which a lot of frantic running around, all over the world, shows us that neither civilians nor soldiers have a say in anything. Optimus Prime, a monolithic blowhard good-guy slab, calls the shots, and what interesting lines there are go to the evil Decepticons, who at least get to call people weak (“You … are … so … weak!”) and tell Optimus, a drive-in speaker blaring instructions, that the world is not his to rule, which should be true but isn’t.

Roger Ebert, in his review of this film, said it was the last of its kind, that the genre had reached a terminal point of stupidity and could not continue. I said that too, when Jurassic Park came out.

The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch’s nonchalant and precise Limits of Control moves through real landscapes in Spain, city and nowhere, his two favorite places. It is an antidote to the Transformers movie or any of the summer’s militaristic blockbusters, holdovers from the Bush era this film repudiates.

Looking and listening—paying attention—replace the hysterical yelling and flailing of big-budget action in this anti-Bourne Identity. For something so minimal the performances are flashy—Tilda Swinton in a white wig and cowboy suit, Bill Murray as a rogue Dick Cheney in a toupee and bunker, a soulful John Hurt pointing out the difference between consumer bohemianism and the kind in Aki Kaurismäki’s poverty-soaked movie of La vie de boheme, which he describes without naming.

At junctures in the film, the non-action fully stops to let Isaach De Bankolé‘s hit man contemplate three different paintings. Jarmusch mixes the subjects of these paintings into the film, relating them to objects, people, and landscapes. Paz de la Huerta is probably the most lingered-over nude in any American film; the Andalusian locations have a felt presence the deserts trashed in the Transformers movie don’t achieve before they’re destroyed.

Revenge of the Fallen claims to be about memories: “I send this message so that our past will always be remembered, for in those memories we live on,” broadcasts the profundo telephone tower Optimus Prime, trying to implant a memory to control us. But “the best films are dreams you’re never really sure you had,” counters Tilda Swinton in Jarmusch’s film, neutralizing him.    


The Hurt Locker

Far from being non-ideological or apolitical, The Hurt Locker is actually pro-war, and it’s not a contradiction that it’s the best American film made about the war in Iraq so far. Kathryn Bigelow’s film explicitly states that it is better to spend every day of your life risking getting blown to pieces defusing IEDs in Baghdad than it is to spend even one day in the US shopping for cereal at Costco with your family. While many films have tried to present the American family’s consumerist nightmare before, Bigelow’s film is one that really makes you feel it. She does not shy away from the lower-income status of her hero by ennobling it, nor does she make it shameful. It is stated as fact.

Maybe it’s implicit in the film that the freedom the United States is supposedly helping Iraq achieve will, if successful, lead to the construction of a giant Costco in Baghdad. Bigelow makes sure that’s only a fleeting thought, favoring long scenes of stupid daring, quiet psychotic bravery and misguided adventure, which to the film’s credit are often numbing and hard to fathom. Jeremy Renner, who gives the best performance by a Hollywood actor in any Iraq war film, makes no concessions to likability or heroism. In this Iraq war movie, Baghdad actually looks war-torn, full of rubble and garbage-strewn, and America is gray-brown and rainy.  


Looker

All week things went wrong. You know a week isn’t going to go well when it starts with food poisoning at a casino in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t concentrate when I tried to work, the laundry lost my socks, the place I eat breakfast burnt my toast, that bird that makes a sound like a rusty gate chirped outside my window non-stop. Forces in the world conspired against me.

I couldn’t get into the movies. I went to see the Iraq war comedy In the Loop Saturday night, which was playing on three screens where it was showing, but when I met my date there the next three shows were sold-out. We decided to go to Do Hwa, a Korean restaurant where they make good drinks and show movies in the bar.

I bet In the Loop is funny—I heard somebody calls somebody else “Horse of the Year” in it—but this is a review of Looker, a sci-fi thriller starring Albert Finney that Michael Crichton wrote and directed in 1981. That’s what they were showing on the wall at Do Hwa.

While waiting for the subway on the way into Manhattan, I had studied a giant, aggressive ad on the platform wall for a new TV show called Addicted to Beauty, a reality show about a plastic surgery clinic. The posters make the show look like the clown hospital scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but with a white background instead of a black one.

In the poster, the cast, ostensibly real people, look like surgically altered vultures with polished beaks. Their faces are shoe-shiny, like heads on a Jeff Koons sculpture. Predatory women with mad faces and deep cleavage hold syringes while effeminate men hold their hands to their open mouths in “no you didn’t” gestures, all of them refugees from a Fellini film, glaring at commuters to make them uneasy. You probably need plastic surgery, they say. We’re going to get you.

In the clown hospital scene from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it’s not Pee-wee but his bicycle that’s operated on, then scrapped. That low-tech scene, lit with the kind of multi-colored fluorescent tubes in a Dan Flavin installation, is as far removed from the false mechanics of the Transformers movie as Looker is from Addicted to Beauty.

People who work in fashion and beauty always like entertainments about their industry to be dystopian. They want them to portray fashion and beauty as murderous and fascistic. Somehow that flatters them.

Looker, on first glance, looks like maybe it was directed by John Carpenter or David Cronenberg. Its surfaces are glossy and shallow, the camera concentrates on people’s hair, and it has a knowing, threatening, mind-control-alert quality, especially when Finney puts on big sunglasses or aims his time-stopping ray gun at empty rooms framed like photos from late-1970s furniture catalogs.

Do Hwa showed Looker with the sound off and music by Au Revoir Simone playing in the background. The choice added to the matter-of-factness of the film’s images: models falling to their deaths from windows, crashing onto car hoods. It de-dramatized them but made them poetic.

In Looker, Finney is a plastic surgeon who stumbles on an ad agency scheme to surgically perfect a group of young models, scan and digitize them, use their digitized images in TV commercials, then kill them. With the sound off, it was unclear why the models had to be killed. I think it was so the agency could use their images for free. Now that’s done with contracts. Isolated parts of women’s bodies appear in the rifle-site targets of optician’s instruments and where floors should be there are black grids outlined in 1980s computer-display green. The ad agency is called Digital Matrix. Finney tries to stop them when he meets Susan Dey, one of the models.

At the end of Looker, Finney and Dey stand on one of the floor grids, two actors who have no reason to be together and who aren’t really anywhere. They look around, then walk out of frame, into a future world where computer-generated imagery and cosmetic surgery are normal. 

Outside the bar people go by who look like the actors in Looker. It’s good to look like people from that era, its flat brightness has been stylish for a while. These good-looking people live in the buildings we walk by in the West Village. What do they do for a living? Are they models, actors, surgeons? We walk through them and descend past the Addicted to Beauty posters into the subway. The bucket drummers are out in full force, pounding on hard plastic, drowning out the sound of the trains.

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