Monday, January 01, 2007

New Film: Children of Men & Night at the Museum


Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men has becoming something of a cause celeb among art-focused film critics, who see its current award season neglect as inexplicable, particularly when one considers the buzz generated by such middle brow fare as Babel and Little Children. Indeed, the title for J. Hoberman's review of the film summarizes the current sentiment perfectly: "Don't Believe the (Lack of) Hype." This is a film, as it defenders might argue, that has original aesthetics ideas -- which are virtually unprecedented in studio (Universal) filmmaking -- that attempts to reinvent its dystopian generic sources and that contains vital political commentary. In other words, Children of Men is precisely the sort of filmmaking for which the art-minded branch of the liberal humanist film criticism establishment has been waiting throughout the Bush administration. As Hoberman puts it, quoting an unnamed acquaintance, Children of Men is a "disaster film for NPR subscribers."

And indeed, it is not only in these latter terms, but indeed as a work of formal invention and experimentation that Chidren of Men succeeds. Specifically, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's (Y tu mamá también and The New World) technique of using long tracking shots brings an element of international art cinema that is typically foreign to studio filmmaking. In perhaps the film's best set piece, Clive Owen's protagonist must push his escape vehicle down a gentle incline as he and his pregnant charge flee from the radicals who are set on using the latter for political purposes. (To summarize, Children of Men depicts a world where the world's women have become mysteriously barren, until a young immigrant woman magically finds herself with child.) As such, Cuarón and Lubezki have reinterpreted action-oriented science fiction not only through the use of mobile long takes, but even in slowing down the chase to the measure that technology fails the protagonists. In this way, then, Children of Men follows in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), wherein the past is figured in the future as technology has come to show its age, while reproducing the long take aesthetic of Andrei Tarkovsky and Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).


However, unlike Tarkovsky's work in particular, Children of Men does not produce a cogent allegory. To be sure, Children of Men often references contemporary European and American politics: immigration is curtailed in the picture (an important theme for both spheres, and a natural subject for a Mexican director working outside his country of origin); child birth, again, has disappeared (while the situation is not quite this dire in Europe, many nations do remain well below the replacement rate); Abu Ghraib is directly reference in the prison camp that the protagonists break into; proto-fascism is ascendant; etc. Thus, while Cuarón suggests that we are to read the present into his 2027 setting, few if any of these themes are worked out to effectively rend allegorical meaning. Why do these women stop having children -- is it a consequence of some unnamed ecological disaster? Does it figure a world at war? What is to be made of the pregnant immigrant woman Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) -- is Cuarón suggesting that there would be no children without these populations? What of its quasi-religious connotations? (Also in evidence is the film's anti-war sentiment, which is clearest in the sequence where Owen, the mother and her child pass through a sea of soldiers who are transfixed by the miracle of life; implicitly, Cuarón argues that if only we would understand this very miracle, then war would be rendered obsolete.)

Ultimately, Children of Men operates therefore on the basis of anxiety, suggesting the possibility of a dystopian future without exactly showing why such a future might come into being. (Some might say that this makes it open ended and certainly, most of its advocates may be able to cite reasons why the world is headed in this direction.) In other words, Cuarón suggests a reading of the present without factoring the implications of his themes. Interestingly enough, the director's previous studio blockbuster, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) represents a fully-formed allegory. In that work, thematically consistent with the director's highly-praised Y tu mamá también (2001), Cuarón formulates an allegory of tolerance towards homosexuality instantiated in the figure Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) that does not simply connote but indeed makes an argument. In this respect, Harry Potter is the more politically coherent work, though its visual style, while dazzlingly baroque for an installment in the series, does not even suggest the ambitions of the later film. Perhaps some of this progression is the product of Lubezki's maturation as an artist (he did not collaborate on the Potter film, for what its worth). As with The New World (2005) there can be no disputing the flamboyance of the cinematographer's artistry, though also like that film, it is not exactly clear what if any meaning derives from those visuals.


There is no similar problem with Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum, which to be fair has neither visual élan nor does it make any attempt at allegory beyond the generic contours of the children's film. It is a kid's film pure and simple, where the comedy derives from things being bigger or smaller than they are in real life, though one with supporting performances that should resonate more with its adult spectators: Ricky Gervais effectively reprises his vocabulary-challenged David Brent as the museum director, while the not-dead Mickey Rooney appears as a recently-terminated night watchman, fond of using such words as "butterscotch" as put-downs. For their performances alone, to say nothing of the spectacle of Ben Stiller fighting with a monkey -- which he slaps... tisk, tisk -- Night at the Museum rates as above average studio fare, and a welcome box office champion during this holiday season. With respect to said performances, moreover, Night at the Museum may be preferable to Children of Men for some viewers (though I can't quite say that I am such a spectator): that is for those who might not look favorably upon Michael Caine's hippie shtick. In my view at least, what's the good of a dystopian future if hippie potheads can survive twenty years of world war? I suppose this is what makes it dystopian.

Friday, December 29, 2006

2006: The Year In Film

For this writer, 2006 was a year of disappointments. Foremost among these were Clint Eastwood's two-sided account of the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The first, in my estimation, was a consequence of a very clunky flashback structure, and the second, though I would argue still good, does not attain the heights of the director's best -- that is, it eschews the autobiographical quality that has long made Eastwood the favorite of hard-core auteurists, myself included. Secondary was one of the most enthusiastically reviewed films of the year, Martin Scorsese's The Departed. In short, as I have argued elsewhere, The Departed marks a troubling turn in the director's art, away from the critical stance that ennobled his otherwise brutal corpus. Then again, I have never been a huge Scorsese fan, though I bow to no one in my admiration for Eastwood.

As such, 2006 was a weird year for me in that I would rank neither of my favorite current American director's new releases among this year's best. At the same time, there were few American films to take their place. To be sure, 2006 seems to me to be a truly bad year for the American cinema. Then again, as I consider those films that I did choose to include, 2006 has the makings of a pretty good year -- I haven't even had the opportunity to see two highly regarded Asian films from the past twelve months, Jia Zhangke's Still Life and Tsai Ming-liang's I Won't Sleep Alone. Moreover, 2006 included a couple of very strong European holdovers from the previous year, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and L'Enfant (which I would have included were it not on my 2005 list). A recent indieWIRE survey, parenthetically, placed these two films as the best works of the year.

So, 2006 does seem to be better than it might appear initially, though I will admit most of the films that I would argue confirm this status are still without theatrical distribution in the U.S., which I suppose is topic for another time. In the meantime, if you haven't already, buy yourself an all-region DVD player and become acquainted with European and Asian websites -- that's how you're going to see the best in world cinema circa 2006.

For those films that might qualify, Ten Best Films, along with Fourteen Seconds, Seen Film and Termite Art will be hosting a blog-a-thon over the next couple of days, where collectively the many learned authors and readers of these sites will share their opinions on the best of world cinema. Here is a list this year's respondents (which will be added to in the coming days):

Michael J. Anderson, Ten Best Films
Lisa K. Broad, Ten Best Films
Pamela Kerpius, Seen Film
Mike Lyon, Fourteen Seconds
Michelle Orange, Ten Best Films
Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega, Ten Best Films
Matthew Singer, Termite Art
R. Emmet Sweeney, Termite Art
Alberto Zambenedetti, Termite Art

2006: Michael J. Anderson

Michael's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2006: Lisa K. Broad

Lisa's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2006: Michelle Orange

Michelle's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

2006: Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega

Vicente's list has been moved to Ten Best Films.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Film: Inland Empire

The following dialogue is a fictionalized recounting of a conversation that I had with my girlfriend, Lisa Broad, following a screening of Inland Empire last night. At this point, my thoughts on the film are too tied up with her insights to offer a straight-forward review that doesn't continually succumb to plagerism. Also, it gives Lisa a chance to experience what it would be like to hear her words in someone else's voice, which seems as though it might be an appropriate experience to connect to the film. *Be advised that the following conversation includes spoilers.*

I.
Lisa: So what did you think?
Me: I am considering it.
Lisa: Me too.
Me: I guess I could begin by saying that I thought it was easily the most ambitious American movie of the year.
Lisa: I agree... What I would say is that it was horizontal rather than vertical. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so.
Lisa: (Motioning with her hands) If Mulholland Drive is this set of ideas stacked one on top of the other, Inland Empire was like a series of paper clips combined into a single chain. Does that make sense?
Me: I think so. It's like Inland Empire is a series of variations on a single theme, a study of all of its ramifications: stardom.
Lisa: Not stardom. This isn't one of those facile examples they're so fond of in cultural studies.
Me: Maybe not stardom -- instead say the persona of an actor.
Lisa: I think that's true. It's interesting that Laura Dern has had all these performances where she has been made to suffer over her career... and not just in David Lynch's films. It must be difficult to see one's self on the screen and to see these things done to one's body. That's what all those reaction shots of Dern are about: she is watching herself suffer.
Me: That's true, I didn't even think of that.
Lisa: And yet, it's a very hopeful film.
Me: I wouldn't say hopeful.
Lisa: No, I think it is. After all, during the credits we see her 'Producer credit' at a very intentional moment. And of course, there's the point in which she shoots the Mesmerist, after which everything is restored. And back to the end, there is joy in this ending.
Me: I'm not sure that means it's hopeful. It is still a very dark and punishing film.
Lisa: But seems it wants to say that it's worth it. That's what the ending is about.
Me: But you can't forget the death -- even if it is only that of her character's in a film (within the film). There is a clear tragic tragectory. After words, she shoots the Mesmerist, as you've said. She then kisses the brunette, passing the role on to this other female, before she finds herself in effect in the after life.
Lisa: So you think there is transcendence?
Me: I guess I would say there's an immortality that redeems it.
Lisa: Yes, there is this, and there is also a way out: remember the producer credit and the feeling that the film effects, after being so very punishing, and not entirely pleasant up to the end.

II.
David Lynch's Inland Empire is indeed the most ambitious of all this year's English language fare: it represents a genuine contribution to the form-class of the reflexive dissection of acting, of which Mulholland Drive (2001) is a second example. Here, Lynch interests himself in examining all the implications of the star persona, structuring a picture on either the many variations of a single role and/or the many related roles enacted by a single actress. Either way, this is a film that further extends the critique of the earlier film, inquiring as to the impact that the act of fulfilling a role has on those who do this work. (Lynch explicitly links Dern's work to prostitution.) Moreover, this is also a work that seeks to consider the idea of "role" from every angle.


III.
Me: There is this idea of the "role" which is articulated early on when Grace Zabriskie visits. She says she's heard Dern has a new role, Dern responds that she's up for a new role, and Zabriskie says she has it.
Lisa: Yes, she starts the new film and soon learns it's cursed. After this point she no longer can distinguish whether she's in a film or not... That's one thing I don't like, this psychological dimension. It makes for poor insights into the film. Its the same problem with inadequate readings of Mulholland Drive as a lesbian love story, rather than what it is: a film about the medium...
Me: Yes, a film that divests performers from roles to conceptualize both. But I would say that like that film, Lynch gives the spectators who are insistent upon a psychological reading just enough rope to hang themselves.
Lisa: But in this film there are those things which cannot be reduced to this framework: the rabbits, the Polish setting...
Me: About this part, did you notice that at one point, one of the Polish characters repeated the exact lines that Dern delivered in a conversation with the therapist? My thought was that it too represents another version of the film-within-the-film...

(Cross-chatter about the Polish performers, the implications of Eastern Europeans to represent evil, etc.)

Lisa: There's one other thing I wanted to mention: its as if the Mesmerist stands in for the director, who makes the characters act the way they do. Of course, he's also the person Dern kills near the end of the film.
Me: Actually she shoots him, but we don't see any wounds.
Lisa
: Except on his face, we see a grotesque morphing of her own. This is a film that uses DV well, by the way.
Me: I agree, and it's important that it is him she shoots. It is after this point that she is liberated. It is almost like a Rivette film.


IV.
There is perhaps no better compliment to the on-going Jacques Rivette series at the Museum of the Moving Image (and an earlier one at the Anthology Film Archives) than Inland Empire. Like Rivette's masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), Lynch's narrative does not delineate between dream and reality, but rather creates a reality that operates according to the logic of the first. Again, Inland Empire permits a reading that traces Dern's further estrangement from sanity, but this is to miss the point: the point is that the structured effected allows Lynch to consider the art form he is working within. Likewise, as again with the best of Rivette, Lynch makes his roles interchangeable -- first it is a love triangle with Dern, her husband and her co-star(Justin Theroux) with the former gentleman in the role of killer (so long as the co-star touches his wife). Upon a second image of a needle on a record, this dynamic reverses with Theroux's character, his wife and Dern making up the three components. Now it is Theroux's wife who is thrust into the role of the killer. Then again, it is she who we see at the beginning of the film -- in the role of someone condemned to kill -- meaning that this approximate structure is only that, approximate.


V.
Lisa: But I don't think it's really put in order at all... or at least in a particular first second and third order. All the stories are chopped up and rearranged. The stories themselves have an order, obviously. But they are chopped and strung together.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

New Film: Borat, For Your Consideration & The Queen


There is no easier way to kill a discussion about a film's merits than to call it "funny." To use this description is to stop the conversation, much like making an accusation of "racism" will in most cases end further debate. Larry Charles' Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the brainchild of co-writer and titular star Sacha Baron Cohen, is in generous measure both of these, though the latter is certainly directed toward a presumably higher purpose: namely, to reveal that many Americans harbor innate racist and anti-Semitic sympathies. Of course, the problem is that Cohen attempts to make his case for America's equity with his portrait of a fictionalized Kazakhstan -- read: the Muslim world divorced of a racial component -- on the basis of some good 'ole boy rodeo patrons, a Humvee dealer, drunken frat boys, and a Southern Pentecostal assembly. Not that any of the above actually advocated the eradication of Israel as has the very real Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, but why let perspective get in the way of an anti-American polemic, even if it supposes that his generic Islamic state has nothing to learn from the U. S. of A.

Ultimately, Borat trades on -- or better yet courts -- specific stereotypes to prove the picture's pedagogical point: New Yorkers are rude, feminists are humorless, Southerners are overly polite... and racist, Black youths hang out shooting dice (though they are far more welcoming than the snooty hotel proprietors he will ambush in the next scene) and so forth. In order to achieve their effect, Charles and Cohen often cut following very short segments -- its interesting and perhaps telling that so little came of the Bob Barr encounter, for instance -- which respectively emit varying degrees of staging.

Still, irrespective of these ethical considerations, Borat remains a very funny film. And to this point little needs to be said, because, of course, you'll either get it or you won't. You'll either find the fact that his sister is #4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan funny, or you won't. You'll either find his epic nude struggle with sidekick Azamat (Ken Davitian) funny, or you won't. If you are somehow still on the fence, watch this trailer. If you find it funny, you'll find the film funny. And if you don't, you won't.

I wish the same could be said for Christopher Guest's For Your Consideration -- even if it would have meant sitting through another facile polemic. Unfortunately, For Your Consideration is far less funny than Borat, so long as you don't find limply anachronistic satire of a Hollywood that never existed hilarious. (One thing that it does have in common with Charles' and Cohen's picture is its very calculated attempt to avoid offending America's costal cultural elite.) It's one thing, surely, to be on the margins of the local theatre, dog show or folk music cultures; it's quite another to represent outsiders to a culture that doesn't look little like anything we know. My viewing companion -- the oft-mentioned Ms. Broad -- pondered whether perhaps there was something meta and even avant-garde about this send-up, pointing to the out-of-place characters and to the picture's visual echoes of the ultra low budget film-within-the-film. Perhaps, though even in this respect it falls short: no other comedy this year can match Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World when it comes to experimenting with less than funny material.

So what then is the best 'funny' English language film of the year? Well, a film about the Royal Family's poor response to the accidental death of Princess Diana of course! Stephen Frears' new career high, The Queen, from Peter Morgan's exceptional screenplay, sustains a consistently light tone in spite of its very real tragic content. Opening with Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen in one of many stand-out supporting performances) landslide 1997 election on the eve of the Princess's sudden death, The Queen is as much about his relation to the Windsor's in this time of extreme friction as it is about the Queen (an Oscar-worthy Helen Mirren) herself. In fact, The Queen is no less polemical than the aforementioned Borat in its excessive valorization of the Prime Minister, though it is the absence of this quality in other respects that finally ennobles the picture.


At the same time, The Queen is not all nuance when it comes to its depiction of the House of Windsor, either. To do so would be to jeopardize its claims of authenticity, provided after all that Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is the next in line to Elizabeth II. Here, he is every bit as hapless as one has come to expect from the real-life antics of the über-unpopular heir, though Frears does make the point to show his genuine grief and apparent concern for his sons when he is confronted with the news. Less inclined to these feelings are Prince Philip (James Cromwell in another strong performance), who insists that the Princess's public and private personas were very different indeed and the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), who along with Philip demands that Elizabeth follow the protocol of her throne, in dealing with Diana's death.

In the end, Elizabeth, in opposition to her own better judgment -- that is, in her estimation of the British people whom she has ruled since the early 1950s -- and the traditions of the crown, acquiesces to public sympathy, which in Frears' film is less a triumph of populist justice than a personal defeat for a woman who has far more faith in the British people than perhaps she should. On the other hand, Frears shows himself to be precisely what Elizabeth imagines of her subects; his directorial choices often display the same restraint that the monarch incorrectly imputed to the British public: at the very moment of Elizabeth's fullest outpouring of emotion, Frears films the weeping Queen from behind.

Indeed, one of the surprising accomplishments of The Queen is its success in humanizing Elizabeth, which to an American viewer like myself, is a need for which I had no conception. But it is this very process, that is in helping the spectator to understand why the Windsors' fumbled Diana's death to the degree that they did -- without fully excusing it, to be sure -- that marks the unique contribution of Frears' film. As to its ability to reveal the latent royalist sympathies of one American spectator and amateur critic, I can only say that in this respect, it was also successful.