Monday, February 25, 2008

Ghost of a Legend

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an elegy of futility, an exquisite scorched earth of a movie. Its themes creep up on you and seep into your bones. A tale of friendship and betrayal, it’s also a portrait of rootlessness, of violent men who kill because they don’t know what else men are supposed to do, and it has some of the grizzled, melancholic grandeur of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Yet there’s nothing generic about this film, and nothing melodramatic either; it’s closer to lyric realism. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from a novel by Ron Hansen, the film is an epic poem, a primordial vision. With its dreamlike landscapes and its delicate piano and violin score, The Assassination of Jesse James owes a clear debt to the early films of Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), and there are images here that are among the most beautiful and haunting I have ever seen in a movie. Yet the visuals are never made to compensate for a lack of story (as with Malick’s later films), and they aren’t hypnotic for their own sake. Dominik uses them sparingly, poetically, like a master painter. The film is almost three hours long, but it doesn’t meander and it never seems indulgent. Dominik shows a loving attention to detail, a sense of the ebb and flow of his scenes, that is reminiscent of Coppola’s first two Godfather films. Assassination isn’t quite on that level (its characters aren’t that rich or alive, and the story, though poignant, isn’t full-blown tragedy), but how many films can be compared to The Godfather? I think it’s the finest Western film since McCabe and Mrs. Miller (it has a similar delicate pathos and poetic intensity), and never mind the Oscars: it’s easily the best film of 2007.

At first, Brad Pitt might seem somewhat lacking in the central role. Pitt is a problematic actor: when he has a role that allows him to get out of himself and let rip (such as Twelve Monkeys or Fight Club), he can be a riveting, electrifying presence; but like Jack Nicholson, he can also be lazy and coast on star appeal. He does a little of that here: his Jesse seems only partly rendered, a sketch, and as a result the film at times lacks for a stronger center. But Pitt’s Jesse grows on you. This is an extremely tricky performance and in the end I think he pulls it off and does some of his best work. Pitt makes Jesse both menacing and oddly affecting, lost and almost childlike, a figure of pathos. And although we never really come to know him, there are moments when Pitt suggests that Jesse is an enigma even to himself. (When he talks about counting the stars, for example: a confederate says he isn’t even sure what stars are, and Jesse replies, “Your body knows; your mind just forgot, that’s all.”)

There are plenty of performances to watch here: Jeremy Renner as Wood, Sam Shepard as Frank James, and especially Paul Schneider (from All the Real Girls), as Dick Liddil. Kailin See, as a sexually frustrated house-wife Dick allows to seduce him, gives the only outstanding female performance. (Despite her high billing, Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse’s loving wife Zee, barely appears in the film except to look loving and to bemoan Jesse’s death). And although he has a major role as Charlie Ford, the usually mesmerizing Sam Rockwell isn’t given enough to do here. You’d never guess how talented he is from this role, but he’s a welcome presence anyway.

The outstanding performance comes from Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother), whose creepy Bob Ford is one of the most original characters ever created for the screen. From his first moments, Affleck puts us on guard: there’s something not quite right about Bob, yet we can’t put our finger on it. (By the end of the film we still don’t know; Shepard’s Frank states it for us, however, in the very first scene: “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.”) Bob’s worship of Jesse prefigures the slavish, faintly psychotic devotion of modern-day celebrity hounds like King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin; when Bob smiles, he sets his small teeth on edge and we can feel the hostility lurking inside him, waiting to come out. (It may be buried so deep even he is unaware of it.) In the end, the film is as much about Bob as it is about Jesse (who is never quite real to us), and maybe more so. The amorphous spell of melancholy which the film casts upon us comes as much from our feelings for Bob as for Jesse. Creepy as he is, we never hate Bob; by the end, we may feel almost unbearable pity for him.

It may be facile to say that The Assassination of Jesse James is about lost souls and false heroes; the film is so deftly, instinctively made, so light of touch, that it never pushes its meanings. But they are there, and the exquisite beauty of the film, the ghostlike images, the long silences, the open spaces it allows to exist both inside and between the scenes, combine to create a haunted, otherworldly quality, and a sense of unglimpsed depths. There’s a moment, towards the end of the film, when the Ford brothers leave the James house where they are staying (and where Bob will assassinate Jesse), and we are allowed to see the surrounding countryside, and the skeletal town that is growing up in it. The image comes as a shock, because until now the intimacy of the film has kept our focus closely bound to the characters; despite its epic scope, there seemed no need to recreate the greater world in which they exist (or for the film’s budget to include such elaborate sets). The image is all the more breathtaking for coming so unexpected, and we may be struck by how much care has gone into creating this world, seemingly for its own sake, independent of the story. At such a late stage, letting us see the fruit of this work seems almost an afterthought. Dominik may be so intensely inside his vision that he is indifferent to whether or not we experience it—the process of creation is enough. He has the focus and immersion of a true alchemist.

This is an almost perfect film (the ungainly title and the absence of women characters notwithstanding; even Nick Cave’s improbable cameo is forgivable—he co-wrote the gorgeous score with Warren Ellis). Yet it’s an elusive work, and definitely not for everyone. A lot of people will miss its ineffable, alchemical grace, and mistake it for a rather long, lugubrious Western. Like Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dominik is not interested in genre conventions, not even enough to subvert them. He’s inventing a whole new genre in order for this one work to be exactly what it needs to be. (There’s very little action in the film, yet it’s full of suspense; and the occasional violence is never what we expect, it’s never not disturbing.) At times, the effects Dominik gets are so unique, so inspired, that they seem faintly mysterious. He’s a major, major talent. The Assassination of Jesse James is both an epic about the process by which legends are made and a tender, intimate love story between two antagonists so utterly dissimilar they might come from two different worlds. Yet they do have one thing in common: both men are so lost to themselves that at times the film seems almost like a ghost story. In a way, that’s what it is.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

There Will Be Blood: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Being a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, my expectations were high for this flick, but alas, it did not deliver. Brilliantly directed by Anderson, with a phenomenal central performance by Daniel Day Lewis, I think the problem with the film is at a fundamental and conceptual level. The work is ambitiously themed, but Anderson hasn’t taken the time—or perhaps didn’t have the desire—to draw us into the story or the characters. Magnolia was an epic, ambitious work also, but it was on a human scale, and Anderson never seemed to be reaching for his effects. There Will Be Blood is another matter: it’s all reaching, but it comes back empty-handed. Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel, the film tells the tale of oil man Daniel Plainview, a man without substance, and apparently without heart or soul, driven by mysterious forces (forces that are never revealed), whose only passion is for oil. Plainview doesn’t appear to be all that interested in profit, even, and although he is a ruthless businessman, the impression the film gives is that this is more a point of principle than actual greed. We are never given a clue as to what might be behind such a principle, however, or behind the character’s stubborn, almost inhuman drive.

The trouble with There Will Be Blood is that, if you place a hollow man at the center of your movie, you are likely to wind up with a hollow movie. Daniel Day Lewis carries the film on his sinewy shoulders, and he keeps us gripped by the sheer magnetism of his presence; but the script doesn’t provide much context for his performance, and the character seems to be almost entirely the actor’s creation. Long as the film is (158 minutes), Anderson doesn’t use the time to establish his characters, or appear to care about building suspense. He seems to consider such conventions beneath him, and the result is fuzzy, muted, shapeless and meandering. Individual scenes are often strong—the film is gorgeously photographed—and there’s certainly a dark poetry and lyricism to the film; but because there’s no central thread to tie the scenes together, and without much narrative or character drive, the various episodes just hang in a void. Since we have no clue as to what drives the central character, there is nothing to drive the scenes forward either. Violent confrontations—between Plainview and the preacher, Ely, between Ely and his father, and the final murder—should be intensely disturbing but somehow fail to move us. Anderson doesn’t make us feel the tensions that lead up to these scenes, so they appear to come out of nowhere; they seem overwrought, faintly ludicrous. Inside such a dramatic vacuum, Lewis’ performance—intense as it is—often becomes blackly amusing: Plainview seems not only psychotic but absurd. Yet we can’t tell if he’s meant to seem that way or not.

For such a bleak and violent work, Blood is almost devoid of tension. And for all the care that has gone into the film’s look, and despite the central performance, it’s rather slack, even tedious. It’s clear Anderson is aiming for something big, but I think the ambitiousness of his concepts has undone him (though this is presumably why the film is being praised so extravagantly). He’s trying to paint the portrait of a soulless man, driven by greed or unfathomable obsession, whose complete lack of feeling for anyone or anything besides oil turns him, by steady degrees, into a psychopath. And he’s probably aiming at a parable for our times, in which insane corporate greed strips the Earth of its blood and man of his soul. But the film may be too finely conceived: Anderson has forgotten to take the trouble to draw us into the story and make it dramatic, meaningful, and what’s on the screen are his lofty intentions, but not much of a movie.

There Will Be Blood left me entirely cold. I felt nothing for the characters, and besides Plainview there are no characters, really. There is the preacher Ely, who is faintly despicable but otherwise less than substantial, and Plainview’s son, who barely says a dozen words throughout the film. The rest are shadows, and Anderson seems to have intended it this way (he has cast the film almost entirely with unknowns). And although Daniel Day Lewis is mesmerizing throughout, there is only one scene which gives us a glimpse of what is going on inside Plainview and allows us to see him as a human being (the scene when he admits to hating people). Mostly, he is like some relentless force of nature, a golem, driven by sheer hatred. But there’s nothing to account for this hatred: like everything else in the film, it seems to exist in a void.

There Will Be Blood is a tale told by a genius, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Critics may beg to differ, but if so, I suspect they are responding to the film’s intentions more than what it actually achieves. Since Anderson’s film appears to be about something, even though it never connects with us emotionally, it’s being treated with awe and reverence (with repeat comparisons to Citizen Kane). But I think this is Anderson’s weakest film, and except for one or two scenes (such as when Plainview’s son is deafened in a rigging accident), it’s almost entirely lacking in the compassion, the humanity, which made his previous films so remarkable. There Will Be Blood appears to be a case of a filmmaker getting carried away by the grandiosity of his vision, being too busy mapping the forest to remember to plant the trees. It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Friday, February 01, 2008

To the Lions with the Liberals: Why I Am Not a Political Animal

My rant for the day, in response to a friend’s email, as follows:

There is a huge cultural divide in the United States categorized by a marked difference in value systems. To put it most simply its liberal versus conservative and its seems the rift, which has always existed, has become most prominent these last seven years under Bush. Her seems to have brought out the most base instincts amongst his voting block. They are anti gay(against gay marriage), anti science(against stem cell research), or to just put it simply anti progress. Its really just the old versus the new. Its interesting that things really get started around our 2008 elections which are going to prove to be interesting. A change is badly needed but there is the fear that this other half of the nation will try force us back the other way allowing yet another rich white man to run the country the way its been run for far too long.
(end quote)

I don't think liberals represent the "new" any more than conservatives do. Liberals are every bit as small-minded, just in different ways. Few people really analyze how a predominantly liberal mindset actually serves to consolidate conservative policies, such as for example the "politically correct," humanistic approach which liberals adopt, which is, as John Gray points out, basically Christianity with God and Jesus taken out (at which point, Man becomes the only measure and the entire Universe is stripped of consciousness or life or meaning save that imposed on it by humans). Think about the liberal attitude to immigration, which has absolutely nothing to do with basic social/biological reality but is so narrow and dogmatic that if you voice the slightest reservation about letting a bunch of foreigners live off the state, or about how white people are getting outnumbered, you are automatically viewed as being a right-wing racist. Enforced blind liberal tolerance of unlimited immigrants basically breeds racism by blocking any natural and healthy expression for it (and face it, racism is natural, it's in the genes and territoriality is one of the most basic instincts there is, but so far as humanists are concerned, we are not animals so we can ignore all that!). So the frustration caused by these ridiculous liberal ideas, which are basically lies (such as the Big Lie of "progress," the blind faith in technology and modern medicine, or the idea that allowing gays to marry is a significant advancement for the species!), paves the way for more extreme "right-wing" policies to get through, because right wing- fanaticism actually starts to seem like a breath of fresh air after such madness. Both sides work together whether they know it or not.