Knee-Deep in the Big Maudit
by Chris Dashiell
Will Be Blood (Paul
An American tragedy, in which the early part of the last century casts a shadow on our predicament in this one, possesses the grandeur, solitary and steep, of a forbidding Western landscape. It’s the story of a self-made oil man with an obscure private history and an overpowering will tinged with madness. We glimpse the soul of Daniel Plainview through the gaps and silences in the narrative, and in his tentative and guarded confidences when drawn into the possibility of family and connection, only to close up again when the possibilities turn to dust. Anderson’s novel-on-screen is not the schoolbook American dream, but a strange nightmare of calculation and resentment.
The visual style (the picture was shot by Anderson regular Robert Elswit) is one of remarkable density, with the imagery of oil-drilling and its arduous labors giving the picture a sense of strong physical mass and detail, all the while hinting at the underground plans and desires which only manifest later through their results. Beside Plainview is the boy H.W. (Dillon Freasier), traveling with him to the properties he schemes to acquire, and presented as both Plainview’s son and partner. The boy’s deafness after an oil-well explosion exposes the fatal one-sidedness of the father-son bond. Another test arrives in the form of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), Plainview’s half-brother and weak reflection. But it’s the boy-preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) that presents the greatest challenge. The grimly humorous struggle between the businessman and the evangelical exposes the fundamental conflicts and affinities within the drive for power.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Plainview with a quiet, dread-inducing power, and a declamatory speaking style that complements the character’s withholding manner—he’s like a coiled serpent concealing the most volatile reserves of malice and rage. I can’t imagine another actor evoking such an understanding with such revulsion. For once, the word “mesmerizing” is perfectly apt.
A key element is the score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, not the usual romantic American epic music, however dark, but a harsh modernist symphony of dissonant foreboding. Anderson uses it as an essential accompaniment to the entire action rather than as emotional ornament, and it’s fiercely effective.
The critical reaction has not been unanimous, but in truth I’m surprised that the controversy hasn’t been greater. The film, and especially its ending (a prime source of critical discomfort) thumbs its nose at the mythos of American self-reliance. Our entrepreneur is a black pit of loneliness, an empty sham, not powered by mere greed, but by the childish wish to be better than everyone else, which means trying to make everyone worse than him. His antipathy to the hollow preaching of the fundamentalist is a rebellion against an essential bond of falsehood between them. Some critics, recoiling from the final scene, have sniffed about Anderson’s “immaturity.” What I find adolescent is the belief that a story needs a “good guy” to be significant, or that an irrational eruption from below is not a valid dramatic event. In a time when the grown-ups in public life are actually discussing whether or not torture is acceptable, I’ll take Anderson’s “immaturity” any day.
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes).
To say that Todd Haynes’ astounding pastiche is “about” Bob Dylan, however obvious that description may seem, is to present an obstacle to understanding. I’m Not There is about the idea of Dylan and his music, manifest in the minds of those who lived through a certain extraordinary time—the 1960s and 70s: Dylan as a style of encounter with the times, as a sensibility. The film only depicts the actual life of Bob Dylan through the contradictions experienced between image and reality, with the reality inevitably a bring-down, a corrective if you will, to the myriad fantasies inspired by the songs.
Of the six Dylan avatars portrayed, the central role is that of Jude Quinn (in a Cate Blanchett tour de force), embodying the elusive moment of mid-60s consciousness transformation, followed by disillusionment. Shot in black-and-white (Edward Lachman’s photography deftly matches the movie’s multifarious styles) in a deliberate echoing of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, these sequences convey the youthful poetic heights of Dylan’s classic electric period, in which his songs projected a persona of hip, high-spirited defiance with lyrics of surreal imagery and corrosive humor. How many fans would imagine themselves as Dylan during this time of ferment, and after? Much of the wider public, as Scorsese pointed out in interviews during the release of his Dylan film last year, only became fully aware of Dylan at this time, and the music became a phenomenon of cultural identity.
But the drama was played out against the previous phase—the “protest” era of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The controversy has attained far greater weight in retrospect than it did at the time—but Haynes, in line with his purpose, films the legend. Here, Jude Quinn rejects the attempts of folk music fans, and a hungry press (embodied in the fictional character of Mr. Jones, played by Bruce Greenwood) to justify his new direction. We witness the persona’s seductive stance, but also his petulant mean streak.
This scenario reflects outward into the film’s other five sections: the black kid hopping trains (marvelous Marcus Carl Franklin) and calling himself Woody Guthrie, the embattled poet Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), the protest singer later turned preacher (Christian Bale), the would-be movie icon (Heath Ledger), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), retreating to a belated fantasy of Americana, which he is tempted to escape. In the Ledger sections, the relationship with his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) highlights the romantic aspects of the music, fraught with grief and passion, and Gainsbourg’s character, as the object of so many lyrics, qualifies as yet another Dylan mask.
Haynes captures a time, not in history but in a generation’s soul, while his collage-like method exposes the rents in our imaginative fabric. I found myself inexpressibly moved by the picture. It has an exhilarating freedom of form, and a willingness to explore without restraint the too-often concealed significance of music and popular culture on our lives. It manages to convey something of that elusive power millions have found in Dylan’s songs, and a taste of the collective experience that survives.
The San Francisco-area Zodiac murders, the sensational serial killer case from the late 1960s and early 70s, provides the occasion, not for a thriller, but a tightly-constructed procedural and drama of obsession that confirms Fincher as one of the best film directors working today. After a few early scenes depicting the violence with a rare sense of personal involvement, the film becomes the story of three men—a reporter (the excellent Robert Downey, Jr.), a cop (Mark Ruffalo) and a cartoonist turned amateur sleuth (Jake Gyllenhaal)—united by their absorption in the mystery and a compelling need to solve it.
The dialogue is smart and crisp, with characters talking at cross-purposes and behaving in unexpected way. The visual style (Harris Savides shot the film in high-def digital) shifts its tone along with the time periods depicted, while Fincher allows the narrative to span 22 years without sacrificing the case’s jigsaw-like detail. Everybody involved pays a heavy personal price, yet the movie’s focused attention on the process of solving this case makes us understand why these men do what they do. It’s the respect that Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt pay towards this puzzle, and the characters’ obsession with solving it, that makes Zodiac such a special film. There’s no tricking out the story with sensationalism or superfluous human interest angles—the film trusts that the complex web of clues, false leads, and day-to-day detective work is an interesting subject in itself, and that whatever personal drama arises from the material will be natural to it. In the end, the most important events happen inside their heads. This is a cerebral film, and that may be part of the reason why it didn’t do the box office it deserved. But Zodiac, like all great films, should stand the test of time.
| 4. Offside
The Iranian film aesthetic, one of the few new things under the sun in recent cinematic history, has never been employed to better effect than in this excellent, socially conscious, life-affirming film.
Once again Panahi bravely critiques discrimination against women. A young woman tries to disguise herself as a man in order to get into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to see a crucial soccer match between Iran and Bahrain. If Iran wins, they go to the World Cup, and the whole nation is experiencing soccer frenzy, but women are not allowed into sports stadiums. Our heroine, after paying an inflated price to a scalper, is stopped by security and taken to a little pen in one of the stadium’s rear sections. There we meet a half dozen other women who’ve also been caught trying to sneak in. As we hear the roar of the crowd in the background, the women argue with the bewildered soldiers, country boys who have never met such assertive women before.
The film’s bare-bones style, enploying nonprofessional actors and real-time naturalism, is a perfect fit with the material. Although the underlying issues are serious, extending well beyond sports into the heart of Iranian patriarchy, the effect is gently humorous. This is not a bitter humor, either, but a humor of compassion towards everyone involved—the women and the men who guard them. The film’s final sequence brings the laughter to a new level, where our common nature reveals itself in the midst of differences. And there is not a trace of caricature, exaggeration, or condescension. Rarely has a film of such simplicity been so revelatory.
Panahi made the movie on the sly, pretending that he was making a different one. Was it banned by the Iranian government? Of course. Can the truth be banned? Not forever.
Assassination of Jesse James
by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik).
With Brad Pitt on the marquee, you might be expecting an action-oriented Western. Instead, Dominik delivers this weird and melancholy deflation of the outlaw myth.
Casey Affleck brings some offbeat mannerisms to the role of Robert Ford, a kid raised on dime novels and dreaming of being a part of the James gang. He gets his wish, but only at a point in Jesse’s career when the outlaw is tired of holding up trains and is thinking of retirement. Robert’s relationship to him is an older version of an obsessed fan’s with a celebrity—the possibility of disillusionment and retaliation always lurks beneath the surface. Pitt does well as Jesse James—there’s nothing admirable about this character, although the charisma is undeniable. But Ford is really the plum role, and Affleck, sullenly introverted with flashes of indignant exasperation, is excellent.
Around this central dynamic, Dominic builds a vivid and decidedly unromantic vision of the 1880s Midwest, and the ways of the various low-class James gang members. More than anything, I am impressed with the picture’s indelible look—this is the most visually beautiful film of ’07 that I saw, due in large part to Patricia Norris’s near-flawless production design, and especially the photography of Roger Deakins, who creates a dream-like soft focus texture, even using an iris effect at the beginning of scenes to accent our distance from that era.
We’ve had plenty of revisionist westerns before, but this film finds sad ironies in the actual conditions of men at the time, exploring an eccentric American psychology rather than remaking a mythic realm. The effect is unsettling, inspiring something one doesn’t associate with the outlaw genre—quiet, anguished reflection.
Promises (David Cronenberg).
There’s not an ounce of fat on this little thriller, which doubles as a symbolic drama about the fragility of innocence in a fallen world. Naomi Watts plays a London midwife, a woman with more courage than good sense, drawn into the mystery of a baby orphaned by the death of a young Russian girl. The trail leads to an underworld of Russian exiles, a crime family patriarch (Armin Mueller-Stahl), his violently unstable son Kiril (Vincent Cassell), and the son’s enigmatic chauffeur and bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).
Some have classed it a notch lower than Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but although its theme may not be as urgently relevant, I think it’s more carefully wrought, and Mortensen is sensational as the ex-convict whose hardness is tempered with off-handed sarcasm and a dash of charm. Cassell lends pathos to his vile character—Kiril’s bizarre love-hate dynamic with Nikolai is one of the picture’s most compelling aspects. The film is never bombastic; the outrageous events depicted appear almost normal. In fact, one of Cronenberg’s recurring ideas is to question the very notion of what “normal” is. The fight scene in a bath house is destined to become one of the legendary action sequences in cinema. Yet for all its darkness, the picture has a certain tenderness about it, a sense of renewal and redemption.
Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien).
Three stories about women in love, set in three different time periods of Taiwan, and featuring the same two performers (Shu Qi and Chang Chen) as the lovers in each story. The first concerns a young woman working in a pool hall in 1966, and a soldier who tries to connect with her, and it’s about the choice between just going along in life or taking a risk for love. The second is about a wealthy landowner’s concubine in 1911, and Hou takes the remarkable step of filming it as a silent movie with piano score and intertitles. This serves to emphasize the remoteness in the emotional and sexual mores of the time. It’s about love without any choices at all. The third one takes place in the present, featuring a rock singer with a photographer boyfriend and a lesbian lover. She’s as wild and devil-may-care as the 1911 character was submissive, but still sad. It’s about love with too many choices.
Hou’s reputation as a “difficult” director is in evidence here—the viewer is required to pay attention to every subtle nuance, but the rewards are great. Three Times is a bittersweet look at love and relationships, focusing on the way women’s second-class status undermines the happiness of men and women in all three time periods.
A marvelous summing-up of the Spanish director’s themes and obsessions. The outlandish story (well, what did you expect?) concerns two sisters: a vivacious woman (Penélope Cruz) who conceals her daughter’s killing of the stepfather who was molesting her, and her older sister (Lola Dueñas) who discovers that their mother (Carmen Maura) has come back from the dead and wants to live with her.
Almodóvar continues his maturation as an artist by not wholly surrendering to either melodrama or farce—instead delving into the deeper aspects of the material to explore themes of memory, rebirth, sexual abuse, and the conflicting feelings of love and resentment between mothers, daughters, and sisters. Whenever the story tempts him to indulge in sensationalism, he pulls back and does the unexpected—contrasting the realities of life with romantic myths and misconceptions. It’s a beautifully realized balancing act, with stunning work from Cruz in the central role. It’s great to see everything come together for a director like this. The photography, music, and editing are seamlessly woven together into a sumptuous tapestry. Almodóvar has always been good at portraying the drama in women’s lives. Here he shows a tenderness and respect for his female characters that just glows on the screen.
Country For Old Men (Joel and
The year’s scariest film was not a horror flick, but a tale of violence and evil in the real world, based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, one of the few living writers with a tragic vision. The Coens restrain their trademark ironic excess, paring their style down to match McCarthy’s dark poetry in visual terms.
Tommy Lee Jones plays a Texas sheriff, a man with an old-fashioned sense of honor who feels his faith crumbling in a country that just seems to get crazier. Josh Brolin plays a resourceful type who stumbles on a bunch of drug money and decides to keep it. The killer on his trail personifies not so much malice as simply not caring—Javier Bardem’s astonishing performance as the assassin evokes a sort of heightened indifference to life and death, even his own. It goes beyond creepy into a realm you’d rather not understand.
One of the things that makes this such a shattering work is the palpable sense that life doesn’t turn out like it does in stories—Cormac McCarthy’s world is the one where death is arbitrary and no good deed goes unpunished. I actually lost sleep after seeing this.
In Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, in the midst of the city’s day-to-day life, an open-air trial is being conducted in a small enclosed town square. Judges sit at a table, there are lawyers and witnesses. Gradually we find out who is on trial: the World Bank. The plaintiff is the African people.
You would expect a film in which a symbolic trial of the World Bank takes place, with impassioned speeches on both sides of the issues around globalization and African impoverishment, would be contrived, didactic, or in any case difficult to sit through. But not at all. Sissako’s method of placing this highly charged rhetorical event in the middle of what amounts to a village atmosphere creates a convincing link between oratory and ordinary life.
The spectacle of the trial, and its spellbinding eloquence, alternates with brief glimpses of character and conversation, like doors opening into wider stories beyond the film. The film’s careful use of incident to establish mood, its accurate feel for the rhythms of life, and the fiercely intelligent script, ensure that Bamako doesn’t just leave you feeling angry, but wiser, more determined, and more empowered.
And now, the B-sides:
11. After the Wedding
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim
Away From Her (Sarah Polley).
Day Night Day Night
Lives of Others (Florian Henckel
Book (Paul Verhoeven).
the Wild (Sean Penn).
19. The Boss of It All
(Lars von Trier).
20. The Darjeeling Limited
|Other performances I admired:
Judi Dench & Cate Blanchett: Notes on a Scandal
Padraic Delaney: The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Anthony Edwards: Zodiac
Russell Crowe & Ben Foster: 3:10 to Yuma
Laura Dern: Inland Empire
Bruno Ganz: Vitus
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Tilda Swinton: Michael Clayton
Jerzy Skolimowski: Eastern Promises
Valérie Lemercier: Avenue Montaigne
Philip Seymour Hoffman:
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Kelly Macdonald: No Country For Old Men
Amy Ryan: Gone Baby Gone
Sui generis award: Inland
Interesting failure award: Southland Tales
This year’s guilty pleasure: The Host (Bong Joon-ho).
Avenue of the overrated: Juno
Duds: Lars and the Real Girl.
The non-fiction renaissance continues:
No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson).
What if a documentary examined just the conduct of the Iraq War, leaving aside all questions concerning whether or not we should have invaded? You’d get this fair-minded, devastating exposé of Bush corruption and incompetence. It should be required viewing for every voter.
For the Bible Tells Me So (Daniel G. Karslake).
Demolishes biblically-based arguments against homosexuality, while presenting moving portraits of Christian parents who have changed their attitudes when a gay child has come out.
Sicko (Michael Moore).
Shows how Americans are denied coverage by their insurance companies on whatever pretext the companies can come up with, and argues that health care should be a right and a service, like the police or fire department. Moore wouldn’t be Moore without a few stunts, but overall this is his most focused work.
What Would Jesus Buy? (Rob Van Alkemade).
Meet the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping as he crusades across the country against consumerism. The perfect Christmas movie!
This year we lost four giants from the director’s chair: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Ousmane Sembene, and Edward Yang. The first three had long and very productive careers. The last, who only completed eight films, left us too soon.
And here’s a list of others who died this year, including as usual many lesser known names who made their contributions to the art of motion pictures.
Betty Hutton, Ian Richardson, Yunus Parvez, Randy Stone, Ryan Larkin,
Walker Edmiston, Janet Blair, Derek Waring, Fons Rademakers, Bruce Bennett,
P. Bhaskaran, Otto Brandenburg, Harold Michelson, John Inman, Gareth Hunt,
Herman Stein, Stuart Rosenberg, Freddie Francis, John P. Ryan, Mikhail
Ulyanov, Calvin Lockhart, George Sewell, Salem Ludwig, Bob Clark, George
Jenkins, Stan Daniels, Luigi Comencini, Barry Nelson, Roscoe Lee Browne,
Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Roy Jenson, Kirill Lavrov, Jack
Valenti, Dabbs Greer, Arve Opsahl, Tom Poston, Gordon Scott, Curtis Harrington,
Bernard Gordon, Art Stevens, Kei Kumai, Charles Nelson Reilly, Norman
Kaye, Jean-Claude Brialy, Kasma Booty, Sotiris Moustakas, Mala Powers,
Alex Thomson, Ed Friendly, Antonio Aguilar, Leo Burmester, Joel Siegel,
Kerwin Mathews, Jack B. Sowards, Charles Lane, Richard Franklin, Bill
Flynn, Kieron Moore, Mikhail Kononov, Golde Flami, Ulrich Muehe, Laszlo
Kovacs, William Tuttle, Michel Serrault, James T. Callahan, Melville Shavelson,
Franz Antel, Merv Griffin, Eduardo Noriega, Clive Exton, Robert Symonds,
Aaron Russo, Emma Penella, Miyoshi Umeki, Jose Luis de Vilallonga, Marcia
Mae Jones, Percy Rodriguez, Jane Wyman, Brett Somers, Alice Ghostley,
Karl Hardman, Peter Kuiper, Charles B. Griffith, Lois Maxwell, George
Grizzard, Tom Murphy, Carol Bruce, Rauni Mollberg, Lonny Chapman, Paulo
Autran, Marion Michael, Raymond Pellegrin, Bobby Mauch, Deborah Kerr,
Joey Bishop, Satyendra Kapoor, Senkichi Taniguchi, Robert Goulet, Sonny
Bupp, Jean-Pierre Reguerraz, Hilda Braid, Laraine Day, Norman Mailer,
Delbert Mann, Kojiro Kusanagi, Ferdinando Baldi, Peter Zinner, Pierre
Granier-Deferre, Gail Sheridan, Hollis Alpert, Dick Wilson, Fernando Fernán
Gómez, Mel Tolkin, Jeanne Bates, Anton Rodgers, Eleonora Rossi
Drago, Ioan Fiscuteanu, Freddie Fields, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman,
Philippe Clay, Ace Vergel, James Costigan, Frank Capra Jr., Michael Kidd,
Patricia Kirkwood, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Markku Peltola, Bill Idelson, Günter
Schubert, George MacDonald Fraser, Aleksandr Abdúlov, Johnny Grant,
Brad Renfro, Allan Melvin, Ugo Pirro, Lois Nettleton, Igor Dmitriev, Suzanne
Pleshette, and Heath Ledger.
|©2008 Chris Dashiell