2014-12-09

Smackyface

I don't have much more to say than I did before. We remain a nation of vicious cowards. That the "question" of whether to bring torturers to justice has become partisan means we are truly lost.

2013-04-06

The Station Agent

Many people will tell you that this quiet little movie is about the difficulty of making friendships, or small-town ennui, or perhaps the sublime beauty of trainspotting.  They are wrong.  The message of this movie is Phones Ruin Everything.

Fin (Peter Dinklage) doesn't have a phone, and doesn't seem to want one, despite the fact that on the phone no one could tell that he is a dwarf.  Fin has resigned himself to double-takes, awkward silences, and puerile taunts, but he also reflexively keeps people at a distance.  When we meet him, his life has been fraught with inertia; his place and movements have been meticulously laid out.

We have to imagine how Fin became coupled to Henry (Paul Benjamin), his friend, employer, and perhaps landlord, but it's a comfortable life for Fin.  When Henry suddenly dies, his business is sold and Fin is left jobless and (we suspect) homeless.  But Henry's will leaves Fin a defunct train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey (there's more than one?), and Fin apparently walks all the way from Hoboken.

Fin's new neighborhood isn't any more tactful in its reception of someone of Fin's stature, and now he has to put up with the cell phone conversations of Joe (Bobby Cannavale) in his front yard and the distracted driving of Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) on the sidewalk-less rural roads.  Joe and Olivia aren't really natives, either, but initially none of these refugees is able to maintain a connection to another.

By sheer daily proximity, Joe starts to bring the three of them together, only to be interrupted by his phone.  Olivia is haunted by her phones, and flees them whenver she can.  Joe's ebullience is the catalyst for the connections, but their relationships develop more when no one is speaking.  Of course, when people aren't talking they're usually smoking, so it's a bit of a race between friendship and lung cancer.

Fin and Olivia address their respective griefs, but I expected the big redemption to be occasioned by the passing of Joe's ailing father, who appears only by phone.  The movie ended before that, however; we leave these three friends in the wistful small hours of their second acts.

Don't pick up.

2012-11-11

Kulturkrieg

The Blue Meanies lost this election.  After the delicious Schadenfreude and gloating, well-meaning liberals have been admonishing conservatives that we all would benefit if they learned from their errors.  This is the civic-minded, Gallant thing to say.

I don't want them to learn anything.  These people fear modernity, and they fear complexity.  Their entire philosophy is grounded in keeping the mass of humanity in a perpetual state of fear, ignorance, and cruelty.  They are not going to turn to each other and say, "I always knew there was solid evidence for climate change," or "It doesn't affect me if other people form a same-sex marriage or get an abortion."  At most, they'll swallow hard and claim that America welcomes all hard-working immigrants (particularly if they're Catholic).

The notion that a polity requires "two healthy competing ideologies" is a conceit of those who profit from presenting the spectacle of this "competition."  Compromise junkies like Obama look on decades of reactionary obstructionism and conclude that—this time—accommodation will be met with reconciliation.  In fact, despite fleeting moments of clarity, cultural conservatives are preparing to bury their heads even deeper up their own hateful asses, and hoping they will learn anything other than to be more adroit liars is fruitless.

Demographically, they are doomed.  The sooner they become an electoral irrelevancy the better.  For all of us.

Please remember Veterans Day. In Flanders Fields

2012-07-04

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson remains his own best parodist, so I'm uncertain whether the pride of place he awards to Benjamin Britten in Moonrise Kingdom is a newfound enthusiasm or just escalation.  I'm getting tired of comparing Anderson's films to Cornell boxes, but the labored set design of Summer's End, the mid-Sixties holiday retreat of the Bishop family at one end of New Penzance, an island halfway between Montauk and Martha's Vineyard, claws at the eye.  Weathered trimming, desultory board games, and kitschy oil paintings aggressively crowd the frame to draw in this curator of summer cabin aesthetics.

Kingdom is as wry and diverting as previous Anderson outings, but it doesn't carry quite the dread of mortality that stalked, say, The Royal Tenenbaums or The Darjeeling Limited.  This is probably due to the focus on adolescents Sam and Suzy; the adult A-listers' roles are respectfully muted.  Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman are delightful discoveries, although I couldn't help imagining Jason Schwartzman coaching them off-camera.  I suppose it is gluttonous of me to have wished for a scene between the Camp Lebanon's conniving Supply Master (Schwartzman) and Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel's mustache).

I hope Ed Norton becomes a permanent addition to Anderson's collection.  The alarm that Norton's Scout Master Ward displays when he learns that Sam is an orphan poignantly illustrates the potential of Anderson's declamatory dialogue style.  I am Jack's bottomless well of wistfulness.

2012-07-01

The Submission

Like The Mirage, Amy Waldman's The Submission engages in a bit of alternate history:  What if in 2003 a jury selected a design for the memorial to the victims of 9/11 only to discover afterwards that the designer was an American-born, non-practicing Muslim named Mohammad Khan?  Waldman gives us a number a perspectives on the controversy, but ultimately they all revolve around that of Claire Burwell, the only representative of the victims' families on the jury and initially the strongest advocate for Khan's design.

With its parade of types gleefully misunderstanding one another, The Submission recalls nothing so much as The Bonfire of the Vanities (which Waldman herself invokes digressively in a character portrait).  As in Wolfe's farce, Deeply Held Principles are incinerated and crushed by Unintended Consequences, and the only relationships that preserve their meaning are personal.

Reading The Submission during the controversy over Anne-Marie Slaughter's unintentionally anti-capitalist essay reinforced the sense of privilege that admitted Claire to the jury in the first place and affirms her role in bringing the narrative to its conclusion.  All other players are too freighted by their class and cultural baggage to empathize with anyone else.  The closure Waldman affords to Claire is not available to anyone else, and Waldman never suggests it should be.

2012-06-24

The Mirage

Matt Ruff's The Mirage presents itself as an alternate history in which a hegemonic "United Arab States" is attacked by Christian fundamentalist terrorists on 11/9/2001, hijacking airliners and flying them into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad and the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh.  As an alternate history, it is shoddy at best.  The Mirage functions much better as a satire on the War on Terror and Aughts pop culture.  The novel's chief delight is anticipating the roles played by public figures in the alternate world before Ruff reveals their names.  Most of these are clever, but Ruff's genius stroke is how he alternately resolves the Second World War and where he locates the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel.

2012-05-28

Melancholia (von Trier)

Previously:  The novel Solaris by Lem and the film adaptations by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh
Melancholia

The only gloss I can put on Netflix's association of Lars von Trier's Melancholia with Soderbegh's Solaris is that they are both interior dramas tangentially provoked by otherwise indifferent astrophysical phenomena.

Once again, von Trier makes a woman (Justine) suffer while he condemns us for our petty, blind selfishness.  Once again, mental illness in a dysfunctional society becomes a beatifying double-negative, but no one is redeemed.  For me, von Trier's films succeed or fail depending on whether he can pull off the catharsis.  I was cheering at the end of Europa (Zentropa) and Dogville, but I walked out of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark wanting to punch someone.

Melancholia succeeds primarily on the strength of the performance of Kirsten Dunst, who I hope escaped from von Trier mostly unscathed.  Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Justine's sister Claire, the only other human in the film, and Claire's relationship with Justine is all that survives the dénouement.  The pre-title sequence, set to the Prelude from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (get used to it now), is visually stunning, clearly violates Dogme, and is probably the only part of the film I'll ever need to watch again.

Dunst is marvelous as Justine, mincing through her wedding reception, genuinely disappointed that she cannot pretend to be as happy as she knows everyone wants her to be.  For once, a von Trier heroine is more adult than anyone around her.  Aside from portraying von Trier's cartoon notion of an ad executive, Stellan Skarsgård is excused from his usual duty of brutalizing the protagonist.  That role falls to John (Kiefer Sutherland), and even he lets the abuse accumulate in his tight eyes and tighter jaw rather than pouring it out on his wife, Claire.

So Justine cannot find happiness in her marriage or her career, and in the second half of the film she returns to John & Claire's absurdly grandiose estate to convalesce while her serotonin levels align with the eschaton.  Von Trier's prior films have depicted worlds more deserving of destruction than Justine's awkwardly banal wedding party, and it's difficult to work up much outrage over John's withholding of certain information.  That John and Claire fail to prepare either themselves or their young son for the climax of Melancholia is no indictment, nor does von Trier intend it to be.  But Dunst's Justine is so affectingly doleful that she seems serene by comparison.

While Justine is marking the stations of the cross via the endless rituals of the wedding reception, Dunst's legendary smile buoys us through all indignities, and it's impossible to imagine anything dimming it for long.  When we realize during the film's second act that it isn't coming back, that's when we're ready for the world to end.

2012-05-17

Solaris (Soderbergh)

Previously:  The novel by Lem and the film adaptation by Tarkovsky

I like Soderbergh, but I might not have checked out his Solaris had Netflix not grouped it with the Tarkovsky and von Trier's Melancholia, which was already on the Queue.

So the set looks like Blade Runner and the plot sounds like Aliens, but there the pretensions to science fiction end.  Soderbergh decided the most interesting aspect of the novel was Kelvin processing (or not) his grief over his wife's suicide.  To make this work, I should like to have had more exploration of the conflict that drove Kelvin to walk out on his wife, provoking her to kill herself.  As presented, it is far too trite for the third act to pay off.

It's possible that Soderbergh intended to demonstrate that humans are irremediable pattern-seekers, and that Kelvin's unresolved grief created the visitations by his dead wife and then his final vision.  But we hardly need a self-organizing, environment-manipulating planet for that.

This interpretation was defeated for me when Kelvin was visited by a Gibarian so out of character from Kelvin's memory of him that Soderbergh lets us believe that this Gibarian was speaking for Solaris.  This reinforces Kelvin's narcissistic response to the phenomena and sets up Solaris as a gnomic godhead that redeems human transience.  As fetching as Clooney and McElhone are to watch, to me this was substantially less interesting than Lem's novel or Tarkovsky's adaptation.

I was surprised how quickly I tired of Jeremy Davies; I didn't even care about his "twist."  When Kelvin spies Rheya conferring with Gibarian's child, I had an awful moment where I thought that she might find renewed purpose by adopting him.

The one idea of Soderbergh's that I enjoyed was Kelvin's worry that he was "remembering [Rheya] wrong."  Does love mean remembering everything about someone with complete accuracy?  Is it less loving to forget something about someone that they would like to change?  To forgive without forgetting is said to require grace, possibly of divine origin.  For those of us who can't travel to Soderbergh's Solaris, forgetting will have to do.

Followed by:  Lars von Trier's Melancholia.

2012-05-16

Solaris (Tarkovsky)

Previously:  The novel by Lem

I wasn't sure how well the novel would translate to the screen, but I hadn't seen anything by Tarkovsky, so I got it from Netflix, more curious about the early 70s Soviet cinema than the science fiction effort.

Tarkovsky adds almost an hour of preamble establishing our protagonist Kelvin and his relationship to his parents (who will almost certainly predecease his return from space), as well as delivering exposition of the fantastic properties of Solaris via oral testimony by a retired explorer (whose recording devices have mysteriously malfuctioned).  This latter point economically evades the limitations of Soviet cinema visual effects, but unhelpfully introduces the possibility that everyone who travels to Solaris suffers from hallucinations.

Because I had just read the novel, I was much less impatient with the first act than the average viewer would likely be.  I knew that Kelvin's suicidal ex-wife would figure largely in Kelvin's encounter with Solaris, and I expected more foreshadowing than Tarkovsky delivers.  Instead, we are left with the feeling that Kelvin is more attached to his childhood; he seems to have made his peace with his ex-wife's suicide.  I think this is more effective than having Kelvin haunted by his ex-wife, fleeing Earth only to find her at Solaris.  That jibes with my experience of memories; they can be quite impertinent when they choose to surface.

I don't know how intentional this was by Tarkovsky, but one motif that struck me was how often he shows us the back of a person's head.  I found myself trying to read a character through the movement of his shoulders, with mixed success.

When facing the camera, I found the performances to be strong.  It's a talky piece, and I thought they hit the right balance of weariness and curiosity without falling too hard on the obsessed scientist cliche.  One element that Tarkovsky captures well is the dilemma faced by scientists charged with what was once the most important mission imaginable—establishing contact with another intelligence—now almost abandoned by the attention of greater humanity.  When the project turns disturbingly personal, from whence do they derive their duty?  40 years ago, one might have been tempted to say that only a Soviet filmmaker could do this absurdity justice, but I hope we know differently now.

Taking the film as one of my few exposures to Soviet science fiction, I wasn't terribly concerned that it didn't look as "futuristic" as 2001 or even Barbarella.  I found nothing kitschy or camp among the Zaporozhets, flaring shirt collars, or ubiquitous cigarettes.  I instead empathized with a group of people who had little enthusiasm for moving into the future if we were just going to bring the past along with us.

Followed by:   Soderbergh's adapation, and Lars von Trier's Melancholia.