Saturday, February 07, 2009

The 2008 Best Picture Nominees

Following are my very brief impressions of this year's five 'Best Picture' Oscar nominees. While I have attempted to rank the films in descending order of preference, I will admit that the second and the third, as well as the fourth and the fifth, are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their relative quality. Of the five, I would argue that only the first is reasonably deserving of a picture nomination, though even then I prefer five other films (which I have listed at the bottom of the post). Similarly, only the first ranks as the equal of last years uncommonly justifiable selections.

Though David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the most deserving of this year's five choices, it is the film for which I may have the least to say. Benjamin Button is very much a Fincher film in its production of a graphic style that seems most concerned with illuminating its synthetically created spaces (often in a low key). Impersonal as always, another trait that I would argue distinguishes Fincher's cinema, Benjamin Button nonetheless succeeds in generating a substantive amount of feeling from its life-in-reverse conceit. (I suppose it is worth noting that I am as a viewer very susceptible to the impossible love narrative prototype to which Benjamin Button corresponds.) On the negative side of the ledger, however, there is Benjamin Button's superfluous framing device, positioning the film needlessly in a Katrina-battered New Orleans.

Milk represents a return to a more mainstream aesthetic for auteur Gus Van Sant after his experimental run of indie features - including Gerry, Elephant (perhaps the finest of his recent work), Last Days and the better of his two 2008 releases, Paranoid Park. A supremely conventional if largely entertaining biopic, Van Sant's Milk succeeds in gently highlighting the genuine injustices experienced by the pre-equal protection-era homosexual community. Then again, at least according to the Guardian's Mark Simpson, Milk whitewashes its eponymous hero's promiscuity, which would have at once made Van Sant's film less conventional, and counter-productive to the current debates surrounding the merits of gay marriage. In this regard, Milk's original appearance as implicitly political is shown to be inaccurate; Milk's historical revisionism serves an express legislative purpose. Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch are particularly memorable in their lead and supporting roles.

While sharing its 1970s world of politics setting with Milk, Frost/Nixon nevertheless manages to be the most sociologically current of this year's selections. (Aesthetically, the honor might go to Fincher's purely digital world, while Milk's release on the heals of the Proposition 8 defeat suggests its political currency.) Indeed, Frost/Nixon's subject feels perfectly in tune with Hollywood attitudes at the end of the Bush years: a lightweight celebrity learns to become politically engaged in the process of taking down - symbolically, of course - a Republican pol. No doubt Frost's surrogate trial was for director Ron Howard (lightweight celebrity anyone?) and screenwriter Peter Morgan a virtual indictment of the previous GOP administration; is it any wonder Frost/Nixon managed a nomination from Hollywood's elite body? Morgan's script, however, like his previous work on 2006's excellent The Queen, finds plenty of sympathy for this most unsympathetic of former leaders of the free world. Frank Langella's strong work also helps in this respect.

Presumptive 'Best Picture' favorite Slumdog Millionaire, directed by similarly favored Danny Boyle, seems to have connected with mainstream American critics and audiences in spite of its extraordinary intellectual simplicity and implausibility. Do we really need a series of vignettes to explain how the film's central "Slumdog" (a term that was very problematically invented by the film's makers, as it happens) came to learn a series of not-so-little-known facts? Of course, Boyle manages to equal his screenplay's triteness with moments of extraordinary grotesqueness and sadism: from a child's sewer bath to secure an Amitabh Bachchan autograph - so he does know who India's biggest celebrity is... I was wondering how he could! - to the blinding of a young beggar child to the female lead's implied rape. Uplifting to say the least... at least the slums produced a millionaire to gloss over these many invented injustices. Suffice it to say that 2008 was not Hollywood's most inspiring year.

Like one of 2008's best-reviewed films, the seemingly never-on-the-Oscar-radar Wendy and Lucy, Stephen Daldry's (justifiably) critically ignored The Reader centers on an implausible, unexplained characterization: in its case - spoiler - that its former Nazi female lead is illiterate. Of course, The Reader's narrative twist, excessively telegraphed by Daldry, provides cover (and potentially exculpation, as Ron Rosenbaum notes) for the serious question of individual complicity in Germany's Nazi war crimes. Daldry instead shoots for a dishonest moral equivocation in which we are led to have sympathy for the former prison guard (while Daldry assures us that we need not feel bad for one of her victims who, after all, has become wealthy in America). This year's Munich, The Reader is (to be overly generous) all about securing Oscar hardware - which it seems it will for Kate Winslet - by pairing the unconscionably fashionable combination of moral equivalence and Nazi sex. That Hollywood does not see how disgusting this film is indicates a fundamental lack of intelligence in its elite class.

While 2008 was a disappointing year for the American cinema, there were a handful of bright spots beyond Benjamin Button, even if Hollywood did not quite produce a great film as it has the past few years. To me, a better collection of 'Best Picture' choices, however improbable the majority are, would include, in alphabetical order: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Momma's Man (Azazel Jacobs), Redbelt (David Mamet), and The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky). This motley assemblage of termite art, populating the most minor of genres, reflects Hollywood cinema at its latter-day best - works of the first-person that reflect meaningfully on themselves and on their culturally-invisible working class subjects, living as they do in America's rarely projected rundown urban centers and anonymous first-ring suburban margins. Then again, Hollywood has always been at its best when being similarly disreputable.

Note: In the first draft of this post four and five were reversed. In thinking more of my order, however, a reversal seems imperative (as much as I detested the original #5). It is simply that The Reader is so reprehensible that giving any indication it was better than another film feels unjustified - as bad as that other film was.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

New Film: Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City represents both writer-director Terence Davies's first foray into documentary filmmaking and the Liverpudlian auteur's return to a non-fiction first-person after his obversely objective 2000 pinnacle The House of Mirth. Following more than a decade-and-a-half after his pair of autobiographical masterpieces, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) - the former ranking as the finest British film since at least that nation's 1940s golden age, and the latter, the best of the rest - Of Time and the City likewise charts the pocked terrain of Davies's younger years, articulating his formative discontent via a jarringly emphatic first-person voice-over and the film's constituent found footage.

Davies's latest reveals a devout young Catholic whose faith never crystallized, transforming itself in the process to the "born-again" atheism that the director professes today. In this use of terminology, Davies marks his kinship with fellow UK northerner Morrissey, who twice used the phrase in early nineties tracks "Black-Eyed Susan" and "Nobody Loves Us." Of course, the similarities between the two extend well beyond this militant anti-religion: first, there is each's homosexuality, which to take the testimony of either has more often than not been experienced as loneliness; second, there is the remarkable directness of both Davies's and Morrissey's art; third, there is the miserablism that this candor takes in both instances; fourth, there is Davies's and Morrissey's related taste for the witty, well-constructed pop song, in supposed contradistinction to the bête noire's of the film director, The Beatles; and fifth, there is the romance of each for Britain's war-restricted, proletarian past, much more of which, it must be said, Davies lived through (the director was born in 1945 and the singer in 1959).

This last point of contact can be seen in the songwriter's referenced taste for the British kitchen-sink realism of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karl Reisz, 1960) and This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963), which was a milieu it seems that Davies was raised in. Much of Of Time and the City's content in fact is concerned with the life of the factory houses of an older Liverpool that have since been raised (pictured) to be replaced by the depressing tower blocks that have come to define international skylines in the post-1960s world. Davies, like so many others, manages to romanticize these older working poor residences, in spite of the often unhappy childhood he spent there - and in spite of even the choking, polluted skies that his images showcase. In an originary critique of modernist architecture, the alienated vertical arrangement of flats disallows communal, empathetic existence. By comparison, the factory houses of Davies's youth promise a familial existence introduced by the under-class romances of Peggy Lee's "The Folks who Live on the Hill" (a perfectly selected piece of pop music for Of Time and the City) and Morrissey's "double bed, and a stalwart lover for sure" in his "I Want the One I Can't Have." All that remains now is the detritus and spray paint decorating the already decaying tower-flat walls.

Ultimately, there is a conservatism - and even according to Lisa K. Broad a classicism (beyond his stated taste for classical music) - to Davies's art, which can be seen not only in his nostalgia, but in the fludity of his montage. Namely, Of Time and the City, in spite of its compendium format, does not read as fragmentary, but rather as a continuous flow of an evanesced time that clearly suits the film's Proustian narration (Davies has long been singularly indebted to the French writer). In fact, as Broad continues, Of Time and the City lacks the epistemic skepticism of the modernist, archival documentary: this is a Liverpool he knows, and which he will endeavor actively to reconstruct. It is by the same measure no My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) - again, Davies is far too concerned with lived experienced, unmediated by a surreal counter-reality. In sum, one can see in Of Time and the City how Liverpool, already the stuff of fiction, made Davies, whereas My Winnipeg shows a city remade in Maddin's perverse, Freudian preoccupations.

Returning to Davies film alone, the succession of images in Of Time and the City does not, at least in this writer's first viewing of the work, sustain the perfect organic progressions established in say Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's Listen to Britain (1942). Rather, in somewhat less impressive fashion, Davies models his latest after the more impressionistic editing of the Jennings's nonetheless striking London Can Take It! (1940) and Words for Battle (1941), with which it shares an overtly poetic soundtrack. Indeed, though Davies has since his Distant Voices... earned the status as the British cinema's new Humphrey Jennings - which is to say its greatest active poet - it is only with Of Time and the City that this inheritence has been made explicit. Thus, if Of Time and the City is not quite another Davies masterpiece, it is nonetheless central to the art of Britain's leading living director.

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.