Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Just to let you all know that I won't be blogging (or emailing) so much anymore, for a while at least. The reason is, I am in process of unplugging to save what is left of my health and sanity, and this entails reducing the ways in which i am exposed to the various media of this postmodern hell society, meaning especially internet (i don't even have a TV). The fact is, I am addicted to my computer and it's time we spent less time together.

The only way for me to be healthy/happy, i believe, is to live in the moment. This has become such a cliche that we no longer have a clue what it means or how damn hard it really is. The preliminary step entails making sure I have time, endless time, on my hands, so I can start each day with no clear idea of what I will be doing or how I will fill the hours. That way, I can actualy find out what I feel like doing, instead of chasing from one pursuit to the next, one distraction to another, simply to keep myself busy enough not to have to think about how absurd and senseless life is (and how soon it will all be over).

So instead of going from one compulsive writing project to the next, I guess this means I will be spending my time walking on the heath, doing jigsaw puzzles, reading, playing guitar, a little tai chi, hanging out with any folks bold or idle enough to wander into my world, stuff like that.
In a word I am going to try hard to become a layabout good for nothing! (of the healthy variety, naturally)

i had a dream last night that the reason i had failed in my goals was because the Spirit had plans for me and was making sure I didn't become a cruel, obnoxious asshole until IT was ready to turn me into one! This is the test of power, and until i am ready for it, i better get used to (and start enjoying) being a powerfless schmuck like everybody else (barring the tyrannical assholes who run the world and rule the media!)

Nonetheless, the point of the dream was that the Spirit would use me exactly as it saw fit, and so none of the rest mattered, at the end of the day. I may as well enjoy life in the meantime.
It is impossible to enjoy life while seeking after confirmation of one's specialness.
So to hell with it. Time to accept I am a nobody like everybody else. Cybernetically speaking, this means I won't be around much for a while, making assertions of my superior intellect or stuff like that (at least till the spirit commands me to)!
I am off in search of the moment


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Face in the Crowd & Splendor in the Grass: Elia Kazan's Primal Sympathy

“The performing arts, theater and film, can be as meaningful as the drama of living itself.” —Elia Kazan

I just saw two of the best movies I have seen in a while, both directed by Elia Kazan (so damn good in fact that now I have to squeeze them on my 101 Best American Movies list): Face in the Crowd & Splendor in the Grass.

Face in the Crowd was made in 1957 and stars Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes, a country drifter with a guitar and a rowdy talent for song and sweet talk. Local radio host Patricia O’Neal discovers Rhodes in a county jail and turns him into a radio and then a TV star; with his canny knack for appealing to the common folk—possible guileless, possibly not—Rhodes becomes an enormously powerful political figure. In the words of James Wolcott, Rhodes is “a rough diamond charismatic . . . who catapults into national celebrity only to become the puppet of a populist scheme orchestrated by corporate overlords, who exploit his likeability as a lever of social control.”

Splendor in the Grass was made in 1962 and stars Natalie Wood and a very young Warren Beatty (in his first screen role) as star-crossed (and puritan-plagued) lovers in late 1920s Kansas. Despite being 50 and 45 years old, respectively, both these films seem surprisingly modern; they haven’t dated in any way that reduces the pleasure of watching them. If anything, they may even have improved with age, especially when compared to movies of the present—which may seem depressingly superficial and frivolous by comparison.

By today’s standards, Splendor is certainly melodramatic; yet for all its hysterical qualities, I think it would be far too intense for today’s audiences. And while Face is a little simplistic, its depiction of the mass media’s role in politics and in shaping the public opinion has proved amazingly prescient, if not prophetic. (Though it may at times be facile, I don’t think it’s any less searing or intelligent an indictment than, say, Michael Richie’s The Candidate or Levinson/Mamet’s Wag the Dog, and it’s a much better film.)

What’s most striking about both films is the sophistication of the writing (Face was written by Budd Schulberg, Splendor by William Inge). You don’t get scripts like this nowadays—or at least they don’t make it to the screen—mostly because this kind of literary, theatrical writing is no longer fashionable (perhaps it’s not possible, either). Nowadays, movies are either mainstream genre fare or “independent realism”—films that opt for everyday banality over engaging story (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine). Movies may have escaped the hysteria and corniness of melodrama, but in the process they have lost something valuable: the emotional intensity of good, biting social drama.

Face and Splendor are realistic films for the period; but they are not by any stretch of the imagination fly-on-the-wall, kitchen-sink dramas. They are never banal or mundane like so many “realistic” movies today. They’re more “theatrical”: the scenes are built and dramatically structured, rich with good, old-fashioned character dynamics and psychological undercurrents. Today’s movies are more kinetic, and watching this fantastic double bill, I realized how much I miss seeing the “old-style” kind of movie, films that involve you emotionally, to a degree today’s “sophisticated” (i.e., cynical) audiences would probably laugh at—because they would resent being made to feel this deeply. Yet emotional realism is what Kazan was best at, and what made him one of the great American directors (actually, he was Greek).

Both films are utterly different—one wouldn’t guess they were made by the same man—and it’s hard to say which I liked better. The first hour of Face transported me to a kind of movie heaven I haven’t experienced in ages; the second hour is less effective—and certainly less enjoyable—but even so, the film manages to hold its themes together and come through triumphantly in the end, no mean feat considering how ambitious it is. Patricia O’Neal is an amazingly beautiful actress and an unusual presence; whenever she’s on screen, it feels like we’re watching a contemporary movie. She has a remarkable ease, a naturalness, unusual even in actors today (it’s most striking when she smiles—she practically lights up the set). On the other hand, I’d never heard of Andy Griffith, and it’s easy to see why he never became a movie star. He’s inspired in the early scenes—a real tornado bumpkin—but less convincing later on, when he needs to be a darker, more complex, Machiavellian character. It’s not really his fault, however, because Schulberg and Kazan haven’t developed the character as much as they needed to either, and with or without Griffith, the film never quite delivers on its original promise. Even so, it’s an astonishingly audacious tale, as relevant today as it ever was, maybe even more so. It’s a sort of archetypal movie, like a template, a Platonic model for the tale of a nobody becoming a somebody, and in the process, being turned into (revealing his true colors as) a scumbag.

Intense as Face in the Crowd is, however, and fascinating as the characters are, in the end they are perhaps not fully convincing. Splendor in the Grass, on the other hand, even while more overtly soap operatic, rings true, and is the more successful (and emotionally wrenching) of the two films. The title is taken from a poem by Wordsworth, “Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood”:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering

Inge, the writer, takes not just his title but his central theme from this poem. The film shows how our youthful dreams for the future must in the end submit to the limitations of reality. In other words, it’s the story of everyone’s life; but since I’ve recently gone through a particularly devastating realization of just this (as well as turning 40), the film struck me as especially poignant. The ardent, devotional love between the two main characters, Bud and Deanie (Beatty and Wood), is both convincing and touching; in movie terms, lovers like this simply have to wind up together. So when circumstances take over and they are torn apart, we trust they will eventually overcome the obstacles and be reunited. But in the end, they go their separate ways, and are left with the tender ache of melancholia for what once was and can never be. With its bittersweet ending, the movie adheres to a kind of integrity that has nothing to do with audience demands or genre conventions, and everything to do with fidelity to the story. Inge writes what he knows to be true.

Such authenticity—not only of the story but the personalities and performances—is rare in movies of any period, and Kazan has a remarkable gift for it, and for blending melodrama with authenticity. Splendor and Face are dramatic, intense, and hugely entertaining. They are never mundane, yet they capture the truth of their subjects to a remarkable degree. Although his films are stylized, Kazan seems almost obsessively dedicated to drawing the truth from his scenes. Though he doesn’t shy away from realism, he doesn’t get bogged down by it either.

People change; they grow, they move on; though at the time it seems literally unthinkable, the passions of youth, the splendor in the grass, fade and die and turn into something else. The sadness of living is inseparable from the wisdom gained by it.

Watching these films back to back reminded me how much I adore movies. It also reminded me of why. At their best, movies not only provide a respite and refuge from the harshness of our lives; they can also renew a passion that is dwindling, and help us to find strength in what remains. They awaken a primal sympathy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Half Nelson, Old Joy, Deja Vu and the Pleasures of A Total Disregard for Substance

Half Nelson. This doesn’t qualify as an official Dogme work, but Half Nelson—written by Ana Boden and Ryan Fleck, directed by Fleck—may be the closest that mainstream US indie cinema has got to one so far, and it’s a quietly impressive, experimental work. The film has little by way of internal momentum (i.e., story), but it’s carried along by Ryan Gosling’s thoughtful and nuanced performance. As the crack-smoking inner-city teacher with (possibly) a heart of gold but a head filled with cobwebs, Gosling brings a measure of contained intensity to the film that keeps it from drifting off into non-existence. It might sound pretentious to call Half Nelson a “tone poem,” but whatever it is, it succeeds where most movies of its kind fail—fly-on-the-wall filmmaking that, while uneventful and subdued, is never dull. While managing to be intensely lifelike, it creates a lazy, trancelike hold upon us, and to be curiously involving—even suspenseful—despite the apparent lack of a narrative. Actually, there isn’t much I can say about the film—it rather defies analysis or description—except that it’s unique and at times inspired, an almost wholly successful work that would have the markings of a cult classic, if it weren’t so determinedly non-sensationalist as to seem inconsequential by today’s standards. See it for yourself. And maybe you can tell me what the deal is with the cat?

I tired to watch Color Me Kubrick—a showcase for the very talented John Malkovich, about the guy who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick for years and got away with it—but it was such a sloppy, amateurish affair that I gave up after twenty minutes.

Instead I watched Old Joy, which makes Half Nelson look like a Tony Scott film. Old Joy—beautiful title, and there is one good scene that explains it—is really an anti-movie. Not only does nothing happen, but it doesn’t even provide anything by way of character, mood, or atmosphere. It’s a big, relaxing nothing of a movie, more or less indistinguishable from a home movie about two guys who go camping for a night, visit some hot springs, and that’s it. Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, the singer-songwriter) is watchable enough (though not especially likeable as a character), but besides that there’s nothing much in the film to hold our attention. It’s by no means as tedious as Brokeback Mountain, because at least there is the mild pleasure of seeing genuinely small-time, amateur filmmakers at work (rather than a Hollywood hotshot trying to be “independent”). Even so, the relative critical success of Old Joy is if anything even more unaccountable than that of Mountain. There are no queer cowboys here for politically correct critics to fall over themselves showing tolerance towards, and the only explanation I can offer is that praising the film is a reaction against Hollywood, a rejection of its increasingly bombastic fare. In other words, liking Old Joy, or rather, calling it a good movie—though it’s not strictly a movie at all—is a way of showing superiority and disdain for Hollywood movies. But five years from now, Kelly Reichardt (who directed it and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, based on his “story”—huh?), will probably be making a Brad Pitt movie.

Déjà Vu
Speaking of Tony Scott films, this is the latest (though you may not find the accents on the title—French is way too pretentious for Scott), and his latest teaming with the ever watchable Denzel Washington. I have to confess a partiality to the films of the younger of the two Scott brothers; I especially like True Romance, but even his generic fare of the past few years has struck me as top-notch entertainment, and a lot less pretentious or pompous than some of brother Ridley’s work. If Hollywood must needs continue churning out violent plotless/overplotted action thrillers, then they should at least get Tony Scott to make them. Enemy of the People, Spy Games, and Man on Fire (not so much Domino) were state of the art action melodramas that wore their brutal emptiness on their sleeves like medals. Unlike most similar fare, they didn’t leave you feeling gypped for a movie. Scott is all style and no substance (which is why the Tarantino-scripted True Romance is his best film)—but what style! Despite the luke warm reviews, Déjà Vu is not a major disappointment. Although it starts poorly and comes unraveled in the last half hour, it upholds the Scott tradition of jagged action and sizzling high-tech realism that make his films such persuasive and intoxicating nonsense. This time he goes all the way out on a limb, into the hokey sci-fi territory of time travel, yet for most of the movie he pulls it off. Déjà Vu sacrifices realism to formula in the last section (when it sends Denzel back through time to save the girl), but until that point it makes for a pretty convincing treatment of the subject. It’s by no means a time travel classic—it lacks the surreal poetry and romance of The Terminator, and obviously it’s not a screwball gem like Back to the Future; but compared to Paycheck, for example (or to most time travel action movies), it does a stand-up job. The scriptwriters (Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio) provide no more than functional dialogue, but they lucked out with Washington and Val Kilmer to read it, on whose lips even humdrum stuff starts to sizzle. (Kilmer is a little heavy around the jowls these days, however, which is perhaps why he's been given a slightly dormant role, a far cry from how Mamet used him for Spartan.) It’s easy to see how Scott was sold on the script—it provides an impressive scenario—that of using a “worm hole” in space-time to create a window onto the past and so track the criminal in the act of the crime. This breezy little number allows for sequences (such as when Washington “chases” the bad-guy in the past while having to navigate his way through dense highway traffic in the present) that are almost perfect bits of movie business—they offer up maximum excitement with minimum consequence. They are so dazzling, in fact—Scott’s style so audacious, his disregard for substance so complete—that at times the film makes you want to laugh out loud.
The Girl with Green Eyes

I just watched this because the director, Des Davies is the friend of a friend (actress Billie Whitelaw), and he was kind enough to loan me his copy. What follows is taken form my letter to Des. (It was rather difficult to write what amounted to a critique of a work meant for the person who made it!—a first for me—not so much because I had to hold back, but because it’s tricky to find the right tone.) The film is from 1963 and stars Peter Finch, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave (Vanessa’s sister).

It’s a lovely little movie, and quite remarkable in its way. It holds up considerably better than many of the (more renowned) British films of the period—Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Charlie Bubbles, etc—some of which are considered classics. It seems a shame it is so little known today. I don’t know the source work by Edna O’Brien, but it didn’t surprise me to learn it came from a novel. I was pleasantly struck almost at once by the film’s dialogue, which seemed unusually realistic and insightful (especially for the period). Something I also found refreshing about the film was its frank presentation of the sexual relationship, the succinct way in which it depicted the mundane pitfalls of romantic love. This is one of my favorite subjects as a writer, and one that all-too rarely gets serious treatment, in movies of any period. I must confess to finding Rita Tushingham less than endearing, however, even a wee bit creepy. This may sound terribly superficial, but I kept wondering if it was intentional (on at least one occasion, you seemed to shoot her deliberately to accentuate that nose!). If it wasn’t intentional, were you aware of it? Because of it, I found I didn’t quite warm to Kate as much as I would have liked, hence was less moved by the film than I would have been, perhaps, with another actress.

What I especially liked about the film, or rather what most impressed me, was the lightness of your touch as a director, the way in which you managed to experiment with style without losing sight of content, i.e., the basic business of telling the story and presenting the characters (who really came to life in a way film characters rarely do). Your style reminded me of Godard from the same period. The film has a hard edge—one reason it has not dated—yet also a soft center, a tenderness. It strikes a very deft balance between straightforward, almost documentary realism and more playful, “cinematic” touches, for which your obvious artistry comes into play. I didn’t think there was a scene in it that rung false—although the scene with the priest didn’t have the weight it needed, and the ending was a bit abrupt.

Peter Finch is a very charismatic presence, and his character had a satisfyingly grounded, no-nonsense quality about it. It helped balance the dreamy moodiness of the girl, who sometimes came off as less “deep” than merely coy. I especially enjoyed Lynn Redgrave—what a performance! Not a false note in it.

It’s rare that a movie earns the term “slice of life” and yet doesn’t make us suffer for it—banging us over the head with excess earnestness and sincerity. The best I can say about Girl (and it’s high praise) is that it’s almost totally convincing and yet never dull—wholly unpretentious without being pedestrian. Most impressive at all, it still seems fresh and alive (though for obvious reasons it’s no longer “daring”) today, forty years later. I think what accounts for its success as a film is the apparent spontaneity with which you handle the scenes, camera, and actors. That spontaneity (or the illusion of it) acts like magical embalming fluid: just like some of those Godard flicks (which I adore), the film has aged in a very pleasing way. It doesn’t seem “old” so much as “experienced.” A film with a past?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers, Harsh Times, Painted Veil, Science of Sleep, Notes on Scandal, Last King of Scotland

Flags of Our Fathers
Clint Eastwood's film is slight and at times uninvolving, but it has a lovely, elegiac quality, and contains some of his best work as a director. Where Eastwood's films used to be characterized by rather clunky ungainly scenes—what I would call slick amateurism (evident even in some of Mystic River)—since Million Dollar Baby he has evolved into a genuinely gifted film artist, with new levels of restraint, subtlety and artistry to draw upon. Apparently, on his way to being 80, he has come of age as a filmmaker. Flags doesn't deliver on the action sequences—it can't outdo Saving Private Ryan—but it has an abundance of genuine feeling, poignancy and pathos, that Spielberg's film lacks. Rather than an anti-war film per se, this is a meditation on war—clearly the work of a man in the twilight of life with the time (and the need) to look more closely at values (e.g., patriotism) that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Science of Sleep
A self-indulgently inspired surrealist jaunt from Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine), this is a film that needs to be persisted in to be enjoyed. If you get through the first half hour, you will probably be glad you stuck it out, because the film belongs to its very own species, being neither comedy nor sci-fi nor drama. It probably gets away with more "quirkiness" than it deserves, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal in the main role, who manages to ground the self-consciously avant-garde humor and silliness in something more real. Also Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of the famous coupling of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin) as the love interest adds something unique to the mix. Like Eternal Sunshine this is a refreshingly close-to-the-bone take on romantic infatuation, and herein lies its greatest strength (the lovers never share a screen kiss). As an attempt at George Méliès/Gilliam/Burton style fantastic cinema, however, it is only partially successful. It attempts far more than it pulls off, but its awkwardness is often touching rather than simply annoying. By all means not for everyone—overall this is an experimental work disguised as a mainstream movie.

Notes on a Scandal
A rather colorless melodrama that I might have found more gripping had I not seen the trailer, which (as is the norm these days) gives away the entire story, twists and all. The only thing this film has going for it, besides the performances, is the morbid fascination of its story (school teacher has an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy and consequently falls into the clutches of a neurotic lesbian). The script by Patrick Marber (Closer) is disappointingly devoid of insight or acerbic wit, and the direction, by Richard Eyre, is at best functional, at worst dreary Channel 4 TV show standard. Judi Dench is flawless, of course, but her character is really little more than an older, lesbian retread of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction—the sexually obsessed predator role, which however realistic, always ends up seeming rather tedious and melodramatic. Cate Blanchett is lovely and ethereal and convincing throughout, but never really affecting, because her character never really comes alive for us. The same goes for the movie.

Last King of Scotland
Another overrated work that I was expecting more from, and despite Forrest Whitaker's sterling performance as Idi Amin (and a very pleasant appearance by the divine Gillian Anderson – blonde with suntan), this is a fairly routine affair. Considering the nature of the material, it's actually rather tame, with none of the searing, scathing intensity of (say) Salvador or Under Fire. The main character played by James McAvoy is unappealingly callow, and although admittedly this is right for the part, the result is that—besides Amin, who is never quite real to us—the film lacks an emotional center. It skirts around the Uganda atrocities (for the very good reason that the central character doesn't know about them until the end), and instead of going for political expose, opts for a more character and suspense driven tale. But frankly, the director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) doesn't have the skill for it. He does a proficient job but no more. Besides a delightful moment in which Amin gives in to a live-saving burst of flatulence, the film has few real surprises.

The Painted Veil
The first hour of this film—based on the book by Somerset Maugham—is rather flat and lifeless, and you may wonder what could possibly happen to justify all these high-production values and prestigious players (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton—always worth watching—and Liev Schreiber). The director, John Curran, rushes through the early scenes without putting much into them, and it's obvious he is trying to get the preliminary business (the courtship, marriage, and infidelity) over with and move on to the real story. Once the disenchanted couple moves to a Cholera-inflicted area—the embittered cuckold's revenge on his bored, frustrated wife—things pick up dramatically. Ironically, the husband's hatred and anger introduces real passion to the affair, and a strange, resentful kind of love slowly develops between them—at which point the film and the performances begin to soar. By the end, something remarkable has happened. In the process of showing how these dried up, desperate characters begin to suffer and feel, how they come alive to each other and themselves, the film begins to cast a lazy, melancholic spell. By the end, we may feel our own hearts slowly breaking. A film that stays with you afterwards, with all the niggling persistence of a doomed love affair, this is a work of restrained beauty and depth.

Harsh Times
Another undiscovered gem, with a phenomenal performance by the ever-amazing Christian Bale, as Jim Davis, a US soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, returning to Los Angeles to look for work and hang out with his former buddies. The film builds slowly to its inevitable, catastrophic climax, and although some of the devices used to show Davis' increasing paranoia and psychosis are formulaic (shaky camera, yellow filters, etc), Bale's performance is subtly affecting. Bale is so real he never allows the film to descend into banality or cliché. Harsh Times is a terrific piece of dark psychodrama, with an unusual degree of authenticity to the scenes. The writer-director, David Ayers, has a solid talent for raw, believable characters and simple, no-nonsense action. He abandons himself to cliché at the end, overdoing the final shoot-out with operatic slow-motion effects when brutal realism would have sufficed (and in fact been far more effective); but for most of the film's length, he keeps us on a razor's edge—the same edge that Davis is walking. Bale's Davis is part Travis Bickle ("solider of the apocalypse"), part Richard Boyle (James Woods' character in Salvador: Davis takes time out in Mexico with the woman he wants to marry), part John Wayne and part American Psycho. He's the all-American fuck up. A far cry from Batman Begins, this is the kind of role Bale should stick to (he also exec-produced the film) if he wants to develop into what he is: one of the best actors working in movies today.