Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Film: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, from a Robert D. Siegel screenplay, provides the past year's most intelligent - and unexpected - use of a cinematic inter-text: Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004). Quoting from the prophet Isaiah (chapt. 53), Marisa Tomei's stripper Cassidy compares Micky Rourke's eponymous Randy "The Ram" Robinson to the Messiah: "he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Significantly, Cassidy closes the quote by citing the Gibson film rather than the Biblical text, thus positioning The Wrestler as an inheritor of The Passion's particular exegesis - namely, that Christ's suffering (for mankind's sin) is the fault of all persons - as well as to its disfiguring violence. The Wrestler demands a similar, however secular, accounting of its spectators complicity in 'The Ram's' physical degeneration. With extreme caution, this line might be extended to Rourke's real-life decay in the public eye; regardless, the effects of the performer's lifestyle secure the film's unmistakable authenticity.

A second, implicit point-of-reference can be found in the similiarities shared between The Wrestler and the works of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.^ Most directly, Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti's behind-the-shoulder camera work recalls the Dardenne brothers' 2002 The Son, which needless to say procured a Christian allegory of its own. The Wrestler's highly-identificatory mise-en-scène emphathetically showcases the everyday physical effects of the title activity and years of drug use (both professionally-enhancing and not) for Randy, as well as the bodily stress of the shoot and the self-medicating again for Rourke. Like his 2000 Requium for a Dream, Aronofsky has succeeded in creating an almost unimaginably mimetic art. While in both cases the films can be difficult to watch, even if The Wrestler does not even come close to Requium... in this regard, the director's latest separates itself once again for its thoughtful self-positioning within the aforesaid cinematic traditions.

The Wrestler likewise manages to artfully externalize its protagonist's physical and emotional distress. Like 'The Ram's' time-ravaged physique, Aronofsky's locations secure the same sense of a life ending, with their mid-winter, treeless settings: chief among these is the New Jersey trailer park in which Randy lives (which happens to recall another of the Dardenne's films, 1999's Cannes-prize winner Rosetta). Of course, this late year setting does form a background for one of the film's most winning passages - namely, the deserted NJ boardwalk where Randy and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) return to the location of many of the pair's all-too-rare shared memories. In a tightly-framed medium close-up, Randy delivers an urgent, and truly heart-breaking monologue to the daughter, whom he admits he tried to forget. At least momentarily, The Wrestler shows itself to be among the most hopeful of this year's films. This scene's opening also shows the picture's, as well as 'The Ram's wit, in his choice of belated gifts for his daughter.

Of course, Aronofsky and Siegel deny us this happy ending. Randy is much too far degraded (in every respect) to achieve permanent reconciliation and restoration. While his 'performance' at his new deli-counter job again showcases his humor and hints at redemptive possibilities - Randy demonstrates a real aptitude with his customers that Arnofosky compares to the wrestling ring (with its back-stage passageway and the filmmakers' use of non-diegetic crowd cues) - a subsequent strip-club encounter with Cassidy deflates the newly rejuvenated Randy, setting off the course of events that will bring 'The Ram' back to the ring one last time.

The film's conclusive match reunites 'The Ram' with 1980s era-opponent 'The Ayatollah' in an unmissable reference to former WWF heavy The Iron Sheik, who famously (among former wrestling aficionados, as this writer was in his childhood) lost his title to Hulk Hogan. Indeed, local color is also supplied with a title credit sequence that includes magazine covers - including industry standard Pro Wrestling Illustrated - and by the participation of real-life grapplers, who really do experience a wear-and-tear in the ring, thanks to the razor blades and chair backs that bring the 'fake' sport to life. Among the film's most harrowing set-pieces is an autograph signing where Randy's compatriots - who it should be added never fail to act warmly towards the aging champion - wait for a very small number of fans, as they sit in their wheel chairs or with their catheters drooping below their pant legs'.

While Rourke does not in reality belong to this world in the same way, his Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is a flawlessly drawn and instantiated entry into their universe. In other words, Rourke deserves all the many accolades he has received for his extraordinary performance. Tomei's still beautiful, though similarly-near retirement Cassidy holds the screen with the former, in no small measure thanks to the actress's physical performance - which is to say her topless dancing. She is every bit as convincing in this role as Rourke is as a worn 1980s legend. (The film's 1980 period detail, including a perfectly placed Guns-N-Roses standard, does much to enchance The Wrestler's authentic characterizations.) Indeed, Arnofosky and Siegel's narrative, structured on its parrallelisms - their jobs, children and so on (she is the much better preserved) - is very much their story.

While there can be no denying the centrality of Rourke's epic performance in carrying the film, The Wrestler is nonetheless more than the sum or his or even their performances (Wood too is of note). Indeed, by virtue of its smart assimilation of sources and its mimetic formal articulation of content, Aronofsky's work is among best American films of the previous year, making the film very deserving of a 'Best Picture' nomination (certainly above frontrunners Slumdog Millionaire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk) in addition to its sure-thing acting nominations.

^ It has been brought to my attention that Todd McCarthy makes the same comparison. If I noticed this after reading McCarthy (I cannot remember now if I did) I would like to cite the Variety critic. If I did not, then there really must be something to this convergence.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Film: Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, from a Jonathan Raymond story, commences with a credit sequence of freight trains arriving at a rail yard, followed by the eponymous Wendy (Michelle Williams) walking her companion Lucy (a yellow retriever mix) across an Oregon meadow. Reichardt's camera maintains an exceptional distance from her protagonists, signaling Wendy and Lucy's ensuing visual objectivity over an exceedingly long take. A woman's hum (subsequently revealed to be Wendy's) counters the image track. Following the film's title card, Lucy escapes into the woods, providing the first of two master-pet separations. Shortly, Wendy finds her canine amid a group of drifters, fireside, with whom she shares her plans to move to Alaska.

Wendy, like this briefly-glimpsed collective, exists on society's margins. Living with Lucy in her 1988 Honda, Wendy very carefully tabulates her relatively meager savings as she journeys to Ketchikan. After being woken the next morning by an insistent, if apologetic security guard (Wally Dalton), Wendy discovers that her car has stopped running. (As she correctly, later instructs her mechanic, her serpentine belt has cracked.) After pushing her vehicle onto the street, and discovering that she has little dog food remaining, Wendy sets off into the ditches where she begins to pick up discarded cans. In line to convert her findings into cash, Wendy willingly gives her bag to a crippled gent who likewise waits outside the can collection machine. (Indeed, a second act of charity will reinforce this emphasis.) As such, Reichardt establishes the same charity-oriented social vision that she introduced similarly at the conclusion of 2006's Old Joy.

With little cash in hand, Wendy thereafter proceeds to shoplift in a nearby supermarket. Catching the protagonist in the act, a straight-laced young employee (John Robinson) drags Wendy into his supervisor's office, where he piously offers that a person who cannot afford to care for a dog should not have one. Persuaded by the young man's screed, the said supervisor has Wendy arrested, leading to a long morning and afternoon in a local jail - and an unhelpful (to say the least) $50 fine. Returning to the scene of the crime, where she tied Lucy up before entering, Wendy finds her pet missing once again, setting off a frantic search that will occupy much of the brief 80-minute picture's remaining duration. Accordingly, Wendy and Lucy directly adopts Umberto D.'s (Vittorio De Sica, 1952) narrative conceit, with which it shares the lost dog plot-point.

Reichardt also summons the memory of De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), and particularly the economic precariousness of that film's protagonists, which is undermined likewise with the loss of its income earner's loss of their primary means of transportation. However, Reichardt's De Sica retread makes no effort to explain how Wendy came to be in the position she is in, given her organizational abilities, the fact that she does not seem to have a substance-abuse problem, and yes, her physical beauty. If the situation in postwar Italy, as described by De Sica and Zavattini, can be considered at least somewhat normative - or at least plausible to the modern American spectator - Wendy's is another matter. While it might be clear enough that there are such economically marginal - and susceptible - figures, especially in this newly-minted recession-era US, making Wendy and Lucy particularly timely to be sure, the question of how such persons are made remains (apart from the very brief suggestion that she is lacking a familial safety net).

Ultimately, Williams's Wendy is a particularly implausible instantiation of the economically at-risk young American. While Reichardt might be afforded some latitude for her casting choice, given Williams's strong performance, her failure to explain how this outlier came into being does weaken the impact of her narrative diagnosis. This leaves the film's viewer wondering how rather than fully allowing for their empathetic participation. In other words, Wendy and Lucy suffers from its unwavering anchoring in Wendy's present, its objectivity in some sense, which is equally the film's aesthetic virtue. Nevertheless, Reichardt, in building on the socially-engaged point-of-view displayed in Old Joy, continues to show herself to be a genuine auteur of the twenty-first century American independent cinema.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Film: Summer Hours / L'Heure d'été (Co- written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été, 2008), the second in a series of films commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay, opens on a group of children as they scurry through an emerald country estate. The eponymous season is rendered with exacting precision. Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier's exceedingly mobile camera pans between multiple figures as it searches for a narrative subject. On the macro level, the film's principle theme becomes immediately clear: the life of the three generations that have congregated to celebrate matriarch Hélène's (Edith Scob) birthday. Among these are her two sons, Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche). The latter two no longer live in France, with Jérémie in China and Adrienne in New York. Thus, when the question of the estate's sale comes up subsequently, the younger two siblings side with selling (as the family home no longer possesses a utility).

But back to the film's opening. Here, Assayas presents the first of three passages centering on the country home. Each of these focuses on one of the family's three generations, with Hélène the first emphasis and her grandchildren the last. After opening gifts from her children, she consults with Frédéric on how she wishes he will manage her estate after she passes. Much of the still striking seventy-five year-old's wealth derives from the art collected by her long-deceased artist uncle Paul Berthier, which includes a pair of Corot's that grace one of the residence's hallways. That Hélène shows a greater attachment to his art is not only a matter of her closer familial relation; as we learn subsequently, she was his last great love.

Yet, this skeleton is not entirely consequential to Summer Hours. Rather, Assayas's film is at its core a work of familial disintegration precipitated by Hélène's death. (Summer Hours resonates directly with the director's fine 1998 Late August, Early September, in both its emphasis on death and its seasonal precision.) With Hélène's passing, once again, Jérémie and Adrienne each opt for their financial gain, as reasonable as it is in their circumstances, over preserving the estate as a family retreat. In this way, Assayas traces the transition from a communal (family-centered) mode existence shared by Hélène's contemporaries to the more individualistic drive maintained by her children, whose lives are otherwise absent, contained in the film's many ellipses. The second generation's country home set-piece, following a heated discussion with the family's tax attorney in which Assayas's mise-en-scène divides into a confrontational shot/reverse-shot chain, and a subsequent brotherly reconciliation in which we discover details of their late father's life, depicts their preparation of the estate for sale. Assayas and Gautier maintain the low-key, interior lighting of the opening passage in this instance, though it is now the detritus of the homestead rather than Hélène's embodied presence, bathed in a deep cyan, and her implied recollections - in addition to a remarked upon Taiwanese flavor, Assayas's film showcases the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky and particularly The Mirror (1975) - that has become the camera's content.

The film's final generation moves into view with the revelation that Frédéric's eldest daughter has been arrested for shoplifting (in addition to her possession of a small quantity of pot). Again this dramatic peak comes to very little in the narrative, though it does serve to shift the film's focus. Shortly thereafter, Frédéric's two children hold a party in their soon-to-be-vacated family estate. With Summer Hours's camera once again mobilized and frequently shifting its human subjects, Assayas not only procures another communal life but concisely references his own masterful Cold Water (1994) - which here is updated in Summer Hour's shift into the present, with the incumbent new musical styles to match. Yet, Assayas also recognizes that there is sadness, at least for Frédéric's daughter, underwriting the conviviality. In an intimate conversation with her boyfriend, she notes teary-eyed that her grandmother once remarked that she would bring her children to this place. The liquidation of her family's heritage will indeed have consequences.

These consequences also include Frédéric and his wife's uncanny experience of their family art in the Musee d'Orsay. Though as his wife notes there are positive social values that derive from their bequeathing the art, its experience loses the personal dimension that it held in the family home. (In part, this passage seems to fulfill the film's commission, along with the behind-the-scenes documentation in which we see a miraculous restoration of a shattered Degas.) Much to Assayas's credit, we feel this loss as the pair look on at an art nouveau desk. In the end, Summer Hour's strength is precisely his articulation of such feelings, and of the details of a family life that extend well beyond the limits of the frame, beneath the film's surface representations and well into Hélène's past. Like A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008), with which Summer Hours forms a diptych of sorts (as each centers on the return of family members to their parental home) Summer Hours brings a family into vivid existence.

Of course, Summer Hours's differences with A Christmas Tale are far more instructive than its similarities: Assayas's film is all subtlety, refinement, economy and silence; it refuses temporal disjunction and stylistic disunity. To contrast, A Christmas Tale possesses the impulse to tell everything; the narrative is constantly moving beyond itself in its many acts of digression. Yet in both cases, this is contemporary French cinema at its very best. One film recommends itself above the other primarily on the basis of one's aesthetic inclinations, on their feelings toward stylistic unity/disunity, freedom/control, and so on. Consequently, this piece's two writers split on their preferences with Anderson inclining slightly toward the Assayas and Broad in favor of the Desplechin. Yet we agree wholeheartedly that Summer Hours is Assayas at his absolute peak.

IFC Films will distribute Summer Hours theatrically in 2009. In the meantime, the film is available on an Artificial Eye, region 2 [UK] DVD.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008: The Year in Film

As most readers of this site are well aware, two studio releases dominated film conversation in the U.S. this year: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (WB) and Andrew Stanton's WALL·E (Disney-Pixar). With each manifesting a clearly identifiable - and divergent - politics, Hollywood did its best to provide choice in its multiplexes. Yet the alternatives were not those so much of 2008, but retroactively 2000, with the Bush-era, go-it-alone-unpopularly allegory The Dark Knight pitted against the ecological-alarmism of Al Gore. And as with that election, the same result, in box office terms, resulted: The Dark Knight moved to two second all-time in unadjusted numbers, while its opponent surpassed the very respectable $200 million mark, without winning the crown. Aesthetically, for this writer at least, The Dark Knight was much better than expected, as it improved on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) by infusing its profoundly-visceral technique with a moral seriousness - and a real sense of living in the midst of terror - absent in Scorsese's nihilistic crime opus. (It also manages an equal somatic effect with far less gore.) WALL·E, on the other hand, suffered in comparison to Brad Bird's superior efforts of the past few years (namely, 2004's The Incredibles and 2007's Ratatouille), from a narratively-leaden final hour and the hypocracy of its anti-consummerism - as well as from its cheap jabs at the obese. None of this of course mattered for the film's appointment as the year's most critically-beloved work.

Not that WALL·E is entirely lacking in virtues: the film's famed first forty minutes are as good as everyone says. Where critical laurels truly seem misplaced (for this writer) is in the praise lavished on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Tarsem's The Fall (2006), my joint selections for the year's worst. With regard to the Kaufman, Synecdoche provided 2008's most unrelentingly bleak vision of the world, effectively extrapolating from the filmmaker's proxy's own unhappiness a world in which all suffer from this same despair. Clear point-of-view? Yes. Unbelievably myopic and staggeringly unpleasant self-portrait of extreme self-concern? Certainly. The Tarsem, on the other hand, manages a balance of cloying sentimentally and sadism, supported by, as Lisa K. Broad puts it, a film grammar that is the functional equivalent of a novel penned by an illiterate.

Now on to the not awful... heck, on to the very good. For Tativille's two authors, Anderson and Broad, the distinction of the best American narrative film of the year belongs to Michel Gondry's evidently-undervalued Be Kind Rewind (pictured). Improving on his strong The Science of Sleep (2006), Gondry once again pulls together the often antithetical spheres of the cinema and the visual arts in his relational aesthetic-inspired latest foray into videotape nostalgia. This wasn't the funniest of a handful of strong American comedies in 2008 (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Role Models and Forgetting Sarah Marshall were all funnier individually; Adam McKay's Step Brothers had its moments, most of which made their way into the film's many trailers, though McKay's mise-en-scène was mind-numbingly lazy) but it was certainly the finest in many other respects.

Then again, Japan provided a number of challenges to Gondry on the comedy front: Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), the purely funniest of the group, represent three rare instances of comic filmmaking that all touch on human transience and the institutions of its country of origin - which is to say, these were three remarkable works of art. Yet, none of the above could touch a fourth Japanese film of the past twelve months, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece Tokyo Sonata, which like the former grouping dissects its nation's mythology and its present-day economic situation. Tokyo Sonata was Broad's choice for the film of the year and a very close second for Anderson.

My own choice for the film of the year - and Broad's #2 - was Lucrecia Martel's career-peak The Headless Woman (Argentina). For me, The Headless Woman proved the year's fullest inter-mixture of form and discourse, providing a genuine attempt to remake film language in the image of its material. It was the un-Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel) in its achievement in providing a plausible platform for its protagonist's perceptual irregularity. In fact, from global reports, 2008 may well be a year defined ultimately by the Latin American cinema generally and Argentine film specifically.

But back to the local. Posted below are Lisa and my choices for the year's top ten, selected from our favorite New York and New Haven theatrical and festival screenings (with an additional unreleased picture from Northern Europe making the cut). Through the New Year, I will also link to our favorite colleagues' selections on various sister sites. Please check back in the coming days for these updates.

-Michael J. Anderson, 12/23/2008

Updated: A 'mini' year-end poll, comprised of tabulations of the above lists, is also available on Tativille affiliate Ten Best Films.

2008: Michael J. Anderson

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, 2007)
RR (James Benning, 2007)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)
Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007)

Runners-up: Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky), Sparrow (Johnnie To), You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007).

Updated (3/15/09): My 2008 only list is now available here, with an English-language version here.

2008: Lisa K. Broad

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky)
Sparrow (Johnnie To)
Redbelt (David Mamet)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

Retrospective Favorites of 2008
The Daughter of the Samurai (Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami, 1937), Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978), L'Immortelle (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1963), Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968), Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, 1957).