Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Gem & A Guilty Pleasure
Lars and the Real Girl & Awake

In a hundred years of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like Lars and the Real Girl, the new film from director Craig Gillespie and writer Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under). Lars (Ryan Gosling) is not quite right in the head; he keeps to himself, he can’t bear to be touched, and he resists the efforts of his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) to draw him out of his self-imposed solitude. Then one day, he asks Karin and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) if he can bring over a friend. They are delighted, until Lars’ friends turns out to be an “anatomically correct” silicon love doll named Bianca. Lars informs them that Bianca is Brazilian/Danish, that she’s shy and doesn’t talk much, and that, being deeply religious, she doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping alone with Lars (in the garage where he lives). So Karen and Dave agree to put Bianca up in their place and, convinced Lars has lost his marbles, they suggest that Bianca visit the local G.P, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) for a check-up, hoping to put Lars under observation. After meeting Bianca, Dr. Dagmar suggests that, for the time being, they go along with Lars’ fantasy and see what happens. Before long the whole town has agreed to treat Bianca as real: she attends church, has her hair done, and eventually gets accepted on the local school board.

Funny as it is, Lars and the Real Girl isn’t really a comedy; and although it’s an exquisitely tender-hearted film, it’s never sentimental (having a silicon sex-doll at its center pretty much makes sure of that). Like Lars himself, the movie doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It’s a lovable oddity in a felicitous “tradition” of flukes that includes Harold and Maude, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Donnie Darko, Harvey, and United States of Leland (also with Gosling), movies that by all rights shouldn’t work but somehow do. Lars and the Real Girl takes us into unexplored realms of humor and pathos, areas of experience that—outside of real life—probably only these oddball empathic American movies can provide.

As played by Gosling, Lars is a prodigy as well as a freak; he’s impossible to get a handle on. How much does he believe Bianca is real? We never know for sure. Lars has a sweetness and vulnerability that’s both heartbreaking and heartening, but there’s a solidness to him too, a determination and directness. He’s a survivor, and though he may be delusional, he’s not solipsist. He stays true to his delusions, his fantasy world has a life it its own (he fights with Bianca when he feels she is becoming too independent). Before we know it, the plastic Bianca begins to seem real to us, too.

In interviews, Gosling has remarked upon the similarity between Lars’ peculiar affection for Bianca and the love children feel for stuffed toys (Gosling observes how the love children feel for their toys is genuine even though it is never returned). This similarity is made explicit in the movie when Lars gives mouth-to-mouth to a co-worker’s teddy bear (Margo, played by Kelli Garner, in a lovely, soulful performance). Like a child, Lars loves from both sides, and by the end of the movie his weird delusion has come to seem almost enlightened, like saintly, unconditional love. (What could be more selfless than loving someone who can never love us back?)

Lars learns how to relate to others by finding the soul in an inanimate object, and by finding his own capacity to love, he discovers his own soul. And the whole town learns by his example. Lars’ delusion has the power of vision: it transforms reality into something better than it was before. With its kooky, off-kilter wisdom and its dead-on portrait of small-town Americana (where everyone’s a freak on the inside), Lars and the Real Girl is enough to restore your faith in human nature. It’s a goddamned miracle.

Awake, the new thriller by first-time director Joby Harold, takes off from a grisly real-life phenomenon called “anesthetic awareness.” This is when patients are unaccountably left fully conscious—and physically paralyzed—during surgery, and Harold (who also wrote the script) has spun a preposterously entertaining yarn from this grisly germ of an idea, and manages to hold us in a vice-like grip for pretty much the entire film. How often can you say of a Hollywood thriller that you don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next? Awake is brazenly indifferent to plausibility, but you can’t help but admire the film’s audacity. Along with fantastic plot twists, Harold throws Hitchcockian flourishes and elements of Greek tragedy into the mix like a crazed chef. In lesser hands, Awake would have been a tawdry melodrama, but Harold believes in his material so fervently (in a way a more seasoned professional never could) that the film works on several levels at once. Ingenious as it is, it’s not mechanical—it has soul.

Harold brings such energy and focus to the scenes that he transcends the subject matter and gives it an almost surreal intensity, and the performances are strong enough to keep the film’s nuttiness from capsizing it. Jessica Alba is suitably luscious and beguiling (her role gives new meaning to the term “heartbreaker”), and Lena Olin and Terence Howard are both in fine form. As the unfortunate victim of anesthetic awareness, Hayden Christensen comes into his own as a performer (having mercifully managed to escape the Mark Hammil curse: that of being horribly miscast by George Lucas). Christensen has an unusually expressive face (the camera takes to him), and he can convey emotion without ever appearing to do much—fortunately, because the film hinges around his internal struggle, and on our feelings of empathy for him.

Awake is a white-knuckle movie experience if ever there was one (it even carries a viewer warning), with some of the most sheerly visceral scenes of horror ever committed to celluloid. Watching someone undergoing open-heart surgery while fully conscious (and able to feel the incision) is enough to frazzle the nerves of the most hardened horror veterans, and this film is certainly not for the squeamish. Too bad the loopy plot (and the melodramatic character revelations, which are really just tired genre conventions) finally stretches our credibility to breaking point. As a result, Awake lacks a strong climax, and as a rollercoaster ride it doesn’t have enough emotional depth to be fully satisfying (its shallowness is at odds with its rather contrived attempts at pathos). But for most of its length it’s close to a pop classic, and probably the best metaphysical thriller since The Sixth Sense (a film I didn’t much care for). In fact, Harold better watch out or he may wind up as the next M. Night Shyamalan. Awake has so many twists it makes you dizzy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fame Kills
Heath Ledger & the Twilight of the Gods

According to Freud, the two motivating forces pertaining to the life of the ego are power and pleasure, and the one generally leads to the other: once the ego has enough power to feel secure, it naturally looks for ways to enjoy it. These two drives are nowhere more evident than in Hollywood, where the quest for fame is everything and where “success” is measured solely in terms of recognition and influence. Nor is there any such thing as enough, for unless you are Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise, there is always further up the ladder to ascend.

In our blind admiration and envy of movies stars, we assume there can be no greater happiness—no greater glory or satisfaction—than the power and pleasures of fame. Such an illusion satisfies a need in both parties: it serves the stars to be worshipped—since their power and influence depends on it—and allows the general public to vicariously enjoy the perks of the rich and famous. Such is the complicity of fantasy between the chosen few and the faceless masses.

The awe with which we regard movie personalities is religious worship in a debased form, and the debasement runs both ways. The public derives power from the act of adoration exactly as primitive man does from worshipping his deities. It is a form of voluntary and mutual bondage, a pact by which the god as much as the worshipper is bound. In the past, however, primitive man—and this holds true for the religious person today—remained largely unconscious of the process of creating gods through the act of worship, and the impersonal forces he bowed down to were superhuman beings beyond mortal ken. However much they may be imbued with supernatural beauty, charisma, talent, and good fortune, at the end of the day movie stars are still mortal, and all-too-human. Abstract, elemental principles like the Sun, Moon and planets could of course handle the process of deification, since they had no egos to be inflated. The worshippers were likewise empowered by serving a force greater than themselves: by succumbing to the divine and relinquishing their autonomy, they could be relieved of their fears, doubts, and limitations as mortals. In return, they received the blessings of the gods.

Naturally, by worshipping material success in the guise of celebrities, as if they were a higher life form, the public is drastically reduced in status and self-respect. And given a power and status previously only granted the forces of nature, is it any wonder if our human “gods” suffer from almost pathological ego inflation? The inevitable result of such inflation is a corresponding enlargement of fears and doubts: since they can’t possibly live up to the process of deification, they are oppressed and tormented by it. All the human neuroses and flaws still pertain to them, and such negative qualities can only be intensified by the strain of having to uphold an illusion of perfection in the public eye. Cary Grant once quipped that even he wanted to be Cary Grant.

Since movie stars—by choice, but not always consciously—become living receptacles for all the public’s hopes, dreams, fantasies and aspirations, there is inevitably a dark side to this process. The split between a star’s public persona and their innermost, private self is a shadowy realm, a twilight world in which movie stars spend most of their lives. They can’t possibly maintain an idealized image, but how can they simply be “themselves” in the face of an endless stream of awe, envy, admiration, resentment, greed, desire, hatred, adoration and terror? Since no one is interested in seeing them as ordinary people, stars must create a shadow-persona by which to relate to a world increasingly made up of shadows.

Movie stars are often said to be insufferable prima donnas, but how could they be anything but insufferable? It’s not that they are only human; it’s that their human side (the neurotic, fucked up side in common with the rest of us) has been magnified to grotesque proportions by the reflecting surface which the world holds up to them and forces them to gaze into. In order to be successful, stars must balance these two extremes: the shimmering public image to be worshipped—the magisterial play of light—and the shadow side which must be hidden from view at all costs.

The tension becomes even more severe if we consider the qualities necessary for a star to achieve—and maintain—worldly success: the overweening ambition, absolute self-assurance and drive, and almost pathological self-absorption (their persona is their “product,” after all), all of which precludes any preoccupation with inner growth or development, which would only interfere with their focus and impede their upward trajectory. Who has time for inner values in Hollywood? So far as they exist at all, they are simply items on the agenda. Success is everything, and relates entirely to status. It is wholly outer-directed, measured in worldly achievements, and divorced of any deeper, personal meaning.

Since movie stars project the best part of themselves into the world, in order to be loved and rewarded for it, they run the risk of being left with nothing for themselves. At which point, they have little choice but to take refuge inside their own shadows simply in order to survive; in the end, such rootlessness is likely to turn them into shadows. The pressures of a life of high fame must be unimaginable, yet most of us are too busy envying the “perks” to consider the price paid to attain them. We are in awe of the Wizard; but draw back the curtain and we will find a shabby old man, frantically pulling levers.

There is nothing more terrifying or despair-inducing than loss of contact with reality; but what could be more unreal than the life of a movie star? The price of becoming the receptacle for the worlds’ dreams and longings is that stars are forced into a strange kind of isolation, estranged not only from everyone around them but from their own selves. To survive such isolation takes either an unusually strong sense of identity or a scary kind of vapidity (i.e., not much of a “self” to lose). One must either be made of the stuff of heroes, or such a shallow soul that there is little chance of drowning in the depths.

Heath Ledger’s sad and untimely death—intentional or not—is all the proof we need that being a movie star is no party. The relentless drive for power leaves little room for pleasure, and it is usually the sensitive souls who—under the relentless pressure to become deified commodities—wind up as sacrifices on the bloody altar of “success” instead. Since Ledger was neither a hero nor a vapid non-entity—neither a Nicholson nor a Cruise—he was dragged under by a wave of success which he lacked the strength—or ruthlessness—to surf. In Hollywood, it’s the nature of the beast to devour and spit out tender souls without mercy or compunction.

Monday, March 03, 2008

All for a Shiver, or a Smile?
Untraceable & The Cottage, Notes on Mutating Trends in Movie Violence

What new wine can be poured into the cracked old bottles of the serial killer movie? Although the subgenre is less than twenty years old (kicking off with Silence of the Lambs and peaking with David Fincher’s Seven), during this period it has quite literally been done to death. Yet public appetite remains unabated, and Hollywood continues to cater to the bloodlust, with one homicide thriller after another (more often than not with a female lead doubling as both dragon-slayer and damsel-in-distress). The latest offering in this tawdry lineage is Untraceable, directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fracture) and starring Diane Lane as FBI agent Jennifer Walsh. Walsh specializes in Internet crimes, and during her cyber-patrol, she stumbles upon a mysterious snuff website. At “Killwithme.com”, murders are being streamed live, with an ingenious twist: victims are rigged to a series of grisly death traps, and the more hits the site gets, the faster they die. Besides this queasy twist, Untraceable is strictly filmmaking-by-numbers; it offers few surprises and only barely scrapes by as an evening’s morbid divertissement. Shot in the metallic, washed-out colors of a cinema commercial, with performances and dialogue only slightly above the level of TV melodrama, there is absolutely no reason (besides financial gain) for the film to have been made. Probably the best that can be said about Untraceable is that it’s not boring, and never actually insults its audience. Instead, it glumly serves up the goods, catering to an increasingly dubious demand for sadistic enactments of murder under the guise of entertainment, which is the very thing the film purports to be denouncing.

There is an inescapable problem with the serial killer flick. Since by now we have pretty much seen it all before, the only way for a new movie to distinguish itself is to come up with sufficiently ingenious and nasty new forms of murder for the audience to thrill to. What this amounts to is that the filmmakers, and hence the audience—wherever their ostensible sympathies may lie—are obliged to identify with the killer and not the victims. In consequence, it’s hard not to think of these films, potentially at least, as providing inspiration for any aspiring serial killers out there; and since this kind of movie can’t help but glamorize the “trade” (that of ingenious and nasty variations upon homicide), if only by giving so much attention to it, presumably more and more rootless, single, white males are going to be drawn towards murder fantasies?

Untraceable appears to be denouncing a world in which people are callous and jaded enough to log on to a website and watch someone being murdered, even knowing that by doing so they are actually ensuring the victim dies (as one character puts it, “We are the murder weapon.”). But the film is intent on having its cake and eating it, and the only possible raison d’ĂȘtre of this kind of movie is to titillate audiences with a sense of horror at the various acts of murder. The effect, over time, may only be to reconcile audiences to their own sadistic impulses: they can feel reassured that this is the way the world is, and since everyone else is doing it, why feel bad about it? What difference does one more visitor to Killwithme.com make, when it takes the combined indifference of millions to actually do the dirty deed? The parcel of moral responsibility continues to get passed.

The black irony of Untraceable is that it caters to the same moral emptiness which it pretends to be exposing. Its premise, and the murders it shows us, are just ingenious and nasty enough to save it from complete redundancy, but the film uses moral horror to spice up and enliven its own tired genre. It provides the audience with a grimly satisfying sense of outrage at how depraved our world has become, a sense of horror laced with uneasy, half-formed awareness of our own complicity. But since the film is only disturbing at a visceral and not an emotional level, since none of the characters are real enough for us to care about their deaths, we can tell ourselves it was all just another bit of (dodgy) Hollywood entertainment. After all, there’s a world of difference between logging onto a website to watch someone being murdered, and paying to see the latest Hollywood serial killer flick. Isn’t there?

The Cottage
The art of the horror comedy is in juxtaposing terror with humor until both are intensified into hysteria. (Examples: American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Scream.) The Cottage, Paul Andrew Williams’ follow-up to his debut 2006 feature, London to Brighton, is neither funny nor especially frightening, and it sure as hell isn’t art. In fact, it’s not even good trash. Williams has taken the staples of the low-budget slasher movie—small cast, limited locations, minimum plot, lots of gore—and given them a supposedly “post-modernist” spin of grisly absurdity. The story involves the bungled kidnapping of a crime boss’ daughter (Jennifer Ellison) by two brothers (Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith), who hide away in a lonely cottage in the forest and run afoul of a seriously disfigured serial killer. The Cottage isn’t Grand Guignol slapstick like Evil Dead 2, or sly genre deconstruction like Scream, and it’s certainly not a harmless spoof like Scary Movie. It’s basically a well-constructed B-movie, complete with (extremely realistic) scenes of brutality and dismemberment which are unaccountably played for laughs. Apparently Williams (who also wrote the script, what there is of it) thinks seeing people writhing in agony is somehow amusing in and of itself. Since he hasn’t provided much by way of jokes, so as far as I can tell the violence is meant to be funny simply because it’s not meant to be taken seriously. And if seeing a big-breasted blonde having her face sliced in half with a shovel is your idea of a smile, by all means go and see The Cottage. London to Brighton was a thoughtful, disturbing work on the repercussions of violence. The Cottage seems to have been made by someone with the sensibilities of Ted Bundy.