Eyes Wide Shut (The Cornfield #53)

We begin the year with a holiday picture, and a review from Film.com in 1999; this was written, as I say below, very quickly after seeing the film, and time has only enhanced my strong feeling for the movie. Having posted a number of things for the absurd idea of “the Cornfield,” I may step back a bit from that Sunday habit, although the Crop Duster diary and links will continue full force. In the spirit of this movie, have a dreamy New Year.

Cruise, the news, and framed picture (from the Overlook Hotel collection?)

You think being a film critic is easy, right? Try sitting down to write a review of the new Stanley Kubrick picture two hours after you’ve seen it, without a chance to mull, consider, or generally roam around inside the movie for a while. (Deadlines are tight, and I am guessing that Warner Bros. screened the film late for critics because the possibility of leaks, especially in this age of insta-reviewing, was too great.) Not just any Kubrick movie, either, but the last Kubrick movie we’ll ever see, unless he created some secret opus in the maddening twelve years that passed between the release of Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

How is it? It’s Kubrick, for sure, and in often mesmerizing form. Eyes Wide Shut was widely rumored to be about sex, but this turns out to be wrong. There is much nudity, and a small amount of rutting (supposedly hotsy stuff between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is very brief, and nothing that hasn’t been shown in the trailers). No, this film is about dreams and imaginings, and the way a fantasy might be as thrilling and as dangerous as reality. This film, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, is a dream-movie.

The opening of the film follows a very successful Manhattan couple, Bill and Alice Harford (Mr. and Mrs. Cruise), to a lavish party at the mansion of a high-rolling friend, Victor (Sydney Pollack). Bill flirts with two Gen-X tootsies as Alice enjoys a bizarre interlude with a dashing Hungarian (Sky Dumont — where on earth does Kubrick find these people?). Bill, a doctor, is called upstairs when Victor’s companion-for-hire (Julienne Davis) overdoses. The next night, the Harfords’ mutual teasing about their flirtations leads to Alice’s ferocious soliloquy about her erotic fantasy — never consummated — involving a man they met the summer before. This is enough to send Bill on a strange journey into a sexual underworld, both simple (an unexpected kiss from an acquaintance) and outlandish (a secret society of lethal swingers). It all happens the same night as Alice’s confession, after which nothing is the same for the Harfords. Cruise, who delivers an intensely committed performance, carries most of the narrative load in the film, yet Kidman’s two major scenes, her fantasy and an especially unsettling dream, are given a prominence by Kubrick that underscores their importance in the design.

And what a design Eyes Wide Shut has. It looks and moves like no other movie, except Kubrick’s previous films; thus a tony New York mansion uncannily resembles The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel. Some of the glacially paced conversations are puzzling even by Kubrick’s measured standards, but this film demands that you re-program your expectations of how a 1999 film hurtles along, and I found it very rewarding to be treated in a non-Armageddon way.

For the most part, the actors have that glazed quality that Kubrick evidently desired, which in many cases leads to a kind of mysterious neutrality: Todd Field as Bill’s med school friend, Marie Richardson as an ardent fan of Bill, Alan Cumming as a swishy desk clerk, Rade Sherbedgia as a corrupt owner of a costume store, and Leelee Sobieski as his jailbait daughter, who may be employed by her father in a particularly depraved way. Kubrick’s style with actors is sometimes derided as inhuman, but his methods capture a precise sense of the anxious, the banal, the fatuous. Cruise’s performance in the early reels is a superb look at bourgeois self-satisfaction, unction at its extreme; Harford’s civilized adieu to the poor nude junkie who has almost died at the party — “Goodnight, Mandy” — is supremely clueless.

The orgy sequence is sure to raise questions of just how out of touch Kubrick was toward the end of his life; some of it undeniably looks like decades-old Fellini, or Edgar Allan Poe’s rendition of the Playboy Club. Yet this is a film about fantasy, daydreams of danger; it’s easy to see this as a vision conjured up by a man who lived inside his own head for decades, a man ruled by anxieties and social awkwardness, who might wonder what it would be like to walk on the wild side, drop through the rabbit hole for one dangerous night. Repeatedly, we watch Bill Harford’s face as he strolls along a Greenwich Village street (by way of Kubrick’s London soundstage) or rides in a cab; is he enraged by thoughts of his wife’s erotic fantasies, or aroused by them? Or merely looking forward to the next liberating exploit? In any case, when was the last time a movie came to life by showing us the adventure of a man thinking?

Late August, Early September (The Cornfield #42)

Virginie Ledoyen, Mathieu Amalric: Late August, Early September

From the Sep./Oct. 1999 issue of Film Comment. I was going to run this in late August or early September, and it’s now Sep. 18. Alors.

Do the French make jokes about “French movies?” Roll their eyes at yet another film about young people chatting their way through a procession of cafés and love affairs? I hope not, because there are those of us who pray the “French movie” will never wane, that the garrulous spirit of Masculin-Feminin and The Mother and the Whore will always inform a certain percentage of Gallic exports.

Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September is one of those French movies, yet it stakes out its own distinct territory—or texture, to be more precise. As the title gently suggests (and almost everything in this movie is gently suggested), the subject of the film is the moment in life when youth has suddenly, inexplicably shifted into something like the first reluctant steps of middle age, a good-paying job no longer seems like such a sell-out, and mortality is the guest at the party who won’t leave at a decent hour. Although the center of the movie is 30-ish Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), most of the events are triggered by the illness of his friend, a 40-year-old writer named Adrien (François Cluzet, looking more like Dustin Hoffman as he gets older). Adrien, a self-absorbed novelist whose books have found only narrow acceptance, is now dying of an unnamed malady.

Adrien is tended by many of the film’s characters, and he also carries on a secret affair with a 15-year-old girl named Vera (Mia Hansen-Love). The older writer has a curious relationship with Gabriel, as a hands-off mentor and a confidant who doesn’t confide very much. We don’t see anything of Adrien before he is ill, but Cluzet’s marvelous performance suggests the thaw of a distracted intellectual confronted with death—not as a sentimental story arc, but in his own quirky, still remote way.

Gabriel’s love life is mixed up with a younger girlfriend, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), and an ex, Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), with whom he still sometimes falls into a snuggle. He’s in the midst of what might be described as a kind of passionate float. Mathieu Amalric, an actor who performed similar duties in Arnaud Desplechin’s How I Got Into an Argument… (My Sex Life)–a gloriously “French movie” if ever there was one–conveys the perfect sense of this; not quite handsome or forceful enough to be the star of his own life, he has a humorous passivity that we can believe attracts the beautiful women of those films, and his monkey eyes are alert, quick, eyes that register everything around him. (You want to call him an Antoine Doinel for the Nineties, but there is something unfinished and feral about him that also invokes Truffaut’s Wild Child.)

Gabriel keeps seeing Jenny because they once bought an apartment together and are now trying to sell it; she misses him, he likes kissing her, things almost happen. Assayas has a wonderfully wise feel for the way practical matters, even mundane things, have a way of shaping and defining our lives—were it not for the issues of peddling their flat and signing contracts, they would not see each other so often, and Gabriel might be moving forward in his relationship with the mercurial Anne. Late in the film, Gabriel and Jenny are leaving a funeral, and it is settled that Gabriel will give Jenny a ride to her place. It’s a funeral, and both are emotional, and for a moment we watch them walk along, their eyes darting nervously. We foresee the reunion that is about to happen, a road about to be taken…but then a couple of other characters come along, offering rides, and Gabriel and Jenny go their separate ways. The logic of saving time and saving gas averts a potential life event.

That sequence is realized in a single, loose shot, and throughout the film Assayas covers the action in plain, often handheld, simplicity. (The same purified, clean feel Eric Rohmer has in An Autumn Tale, and Assayas is only 43 years old.) The approach never strains for its naturalism, however, and what we see feels as crafted and selected as, say, an Ozu movie, although Assayas’ restless camera could not be farther from Ozu’s stationary gaze. That title does sound Ozu-esque, come to think of it.

Like the thoughtful progress of Gabriel, the film’s style might be described as a passionate float, as each scene evolves only to disappear in a soft, swift fade to black. It’s as though the movie is embarrassed about nudging up to melodrama, and thus withdraws discreetly. This is never more apparent, or more effective, than when we learn the fate of a Joseph Beuys sketch that has great meaning to Adrien. Assayas lets us glimpse the destiny of the sketch for just an eye-blink before fading out. In the context of the plot, this is the heart-stopping moment, but Assayas comes close to tossing it off—which makes it all the sweeter.

Assayas might well object to Late August, Early September being described as having a “plot” at all. Early in the film, he whimsically includes a conversation in which Gabriel discusses Adrien’s obscure novels, and the question arises of how difficult it is to engage a work of art that refuses to allow the audience an easy way in, via the conventions of story. There’s a little bit of an apology in there from Assayas—not for being difficult, but for giving us something very close to a story. But this lovely movie need not apologize on that score: it puts just as much emphasis on the great matters of love and death as it does the frequent ordering of coffee and sandwiches. C’est la vie, after all.

Saving Private Ryan (The Cornfield #41)

From Film.com, first published in 1998.

A Mauldin dogface: Tom Hanks

Saving Private Ryan has “masterpiece” written all over it: it sprawls to nearly three hours in length, it is properly measured and somber, it takes on a mighty subject. This is Steven Spielberg in Schindler mode. Private Ryan cannot merely be another war movie, or indeed just another movie. Thus the film begins with a half-hour sequence, the landings at Normandy on D-Day, that aspires to be the ultimate word in the depiction of battle on film.

Probably it is. Let’s be clear about something: despite the fact that he occasionally makes dumb movies such as Hook and The Lost World, Steven Spielberg is a master, and the opening of Saving Private Ryan is masterly. In the landing craft approaching the beach, as G.I.s puke on their own boots out of seasickness and fear, Spielberg takes a breath before the chaos to introduce his central character, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). The camera finds Miller’s uncontrollably shaking hand, which reaches for a canteen and a drink of water—not for the soldier’s thirst, we suspect, but simply to give his shaking hand something to do. Miller’s face is hidden from view by his helmet, but the canteen leads us to his stubbled visage, with Tom Hanks looking very much like a dogface from a Bill Mauldin WWII cartoon. Throughout the film, Spielberg will lock us into Miller’s perspective for a moment of quiet and clarity, a little oasis of calm that throws the violence into even more dramatic relief.

Sometimes being a good director is all about taking a moment. This is one of them, and then the battle is joined, a jiggly, ragged sequence of random brutality and explicit gore. The very texture of the movie itself has the heightened look of a nightmare: the images are washed-out but hyper-real, and motion is slightly jerky, as though every moment stops in time for a micro-second before passing on to the next moment—any one of which could be the moment of death. Limbs are blown off in mid-shot; guts splay out of uniforms and onto the sandy beach; soldiers in mid-sentence are startled by bullet holes blossoming on their foreheads. Blood sticks to the lens of the camera. The director Samuel Fuller, an ex-infantryman who made his own version of D-Day in The Big Red One, used to say that the only way to realistically depict war in a movie would be to have someone firing bullets at the audience from behind the screen. Saving Private Ryan comes as close as anyone ever will to approximating that.

The D-Day sequence actually has nothing to do with the story of Saving Private Ryan. Like a lot of the concentration camp sequences in Schindler’s List, it exists outside the narrative, because of Spielberg’s desire to create a document rather than a motion picture. The plot kicks in when Miller and what’s left of his small platoon receive orders to retrieve a private Ryan (Matt Damon) from somewhere on the forward line in France. Ryan’s three brothers have all died in combat in the last week, and General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) wants to pull the private back to the states, to spare Mrs. Ryan the heartbreak of having all four of her boys killed in action. Then Private Ryan becomes a platoon movie, straight from the tradition of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, Anthony Mann’s Men in War, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon, to name a sterling trio of the countless examples of the form. The men conform to the usual melting-pot collection of types: loyal meat-and-potatoes sergeant (Tom Sizemore), loudmouth Brooklyn-Irish cynic (Edward Burns), combat virgin (Jeremy Davies, from Spanking the Monkey), wisecracking Jew (Adam Goldberg), capable medic (Giovanni Ribisi), big-hearted Italian (Vin Diesel), bible-quoting sharpshooter (Barry Pepper). Hanks gives a truthful, well-judged performance—when when he and the Sarge are considering the roster of men for the mission, Hanks flickers with irritation, not sentimental regret, when the Sarge reminds him that so-and-so is dead and can’t join the group. Hanks doesn’t fit the conception of the role, at least in the way the other guys describe the captain; they say he’s silent, gruff, a battle-hardened veteran who shuts the other men out of his world. That doesn’t sound like Tom Hanks, that sounds like Robert Mitchum. But Spielberg has always favored the ordinary-guy hero, and Hanks eventually makes the part his own.

As a platoon movie, Saving Private Ryan is utterly engrossing, with some sharply written conversation and brilliantly executed scenes of danger and violence. In that, it is no better or worse than the trio of films named above. Spielberg is also reaching for a grander scale, and here he has mixed results. As an attempt to make the war movie more realistic and less Hollywood-ized, Private Ryan is often shockingly effective. There are moments in this film where you think, What is about to happen can’t happen in a Hollywood movie, let alone a Steven Spielberg movie—and then, unbelievably, it happens. The cruelty of the slaughter on Omaha Beach feels like an atonement on Spielberg’s part—an atonement for making (as a director) and liking (as a spectator) the sanitized war movies of the past.

The story, and presumably its theme, hinge on the cosmic absurdity of sending (and likely sacrificing) eight men in order to save one man, a grunt who has no special talent or value. Robert Rodat’s original screenplay, which has apparently been worked over by Spielberg and other writers, still carries a bit of the absurd, but not much; there’s something not-quite-thought-out about this movie. The possibility that the mission may be a colossal public relations operation is downplayed considerably when General Marshall reads a Civil War letter of consolation from Abraham Lincoln, tears brimming in his eyes.

So is the mission absurd or not? To give Spielberg the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the film’s theme is confused because war itself has no theme—at ground level, there is no meaning, just a mission. At that ground level, Saving Private Ryan is the masterpiece it wants to be. When it aims higher, it is merely a magnificent piece of movie-making.

House of Bamboo (The Cornfield #40)

CinemaScope was de rigueur at Fox at this moment (1955), so here is Samuel Fuller going widescreen for a bright-lit color-filled noir shot in Japan. Like Hell and High Water just before it, it feels as though Fuller is not yet happy about ‘Scope, and unless you have a giant TV it looks very tableau-heavy, with small figures moving around in large spaces.

However, Fuller does juice things up, rolling the camera through the midst of a traditional dance (a movement broken up by the blundering of the hero) and, especially, finding dynamic angles on a rooftop climax, where the final showdown plays out on a large, rickety globe that spins as it hangs out over Tokyo. Another gangster story where the boss thinks the world is his.

That story: American Robert Stack (nothing but voice and trenchcoat, already auditioning for Eliot Ness) is the blunderer, come to Japan to find a dead buddy and initiating contact with the buddy’s widow (Shirley Yamaguchi). After trying to lean on a few pachinko-parlor managers, Stack gets leaned on by the real local Ichiban, Robert Ryan, who runs protection (and the occasional bank robbery) with his loyal harem of flunkies. Ryan is introduced when Stack is sent flying through a screen wall in the back of the frame and we discover the boss perched here, amused at the crudeness of this newcomer.

It doesn’t take long for Ryan to become fond of Stack, much to the jealous frustration of Cameron Mitchell, formerly Ryan’s pet. DeForest Kelley is also in there as a henchman, and Brad Dexter and Sessue Hayakawa are initially prominent although the movie seems to forget about them, not without reason. This is Robert Ryan’s show, and it’s one of those movies where the bad guy so outweighs the ostensible protagonist that they don’t really seem to be boxing in the same fight.

Fuller is always great with violent cultural contrasts, and there are succinct examples here: a corpse seen from ground level, its feet toward us, as Mount Fujiyama domes white and eternal in the background, for instance, a swell Fuller touch. If the widescreen format takes some of the customary Fuller oomph out of the experience, it adds to the sense of House of Bamboo as exotica. The U.S. fascination with Japanese things in the 1950s and early 60s, seemingly incongruous in the years following a terrible war, is served here, as the movie presents a Lazy Susan turntable from which we can select various items: kimono styles, tatami mats, and an egg “on a shingle” eaten with chopsticks.

The film also lives in Robert Ryan’s performance, continuing his run as one of the great neurotics in an age when people thought about neurosis. He wonders aloud why he saved a wounded Stack during a robbery – despite his policy to kill anybody injured during a job – without quite coming out and saying he has some sort of attraction for his underling. You’re not supposed to do that kind of wondering out loud when you’re the boss, but he can’t quite help himself. Ryan’s anguish never fits neatly into his movies, much to their benefit.

More thoughts on Fuller: http://roberthorton.wordpress.com/2009/11/20/sams-place/

Pola X (The Cornfield #39)

A 2000 Film.com review. The film’s female lead, Yekaterina Golubyova, died a few days ago, which means both of the leading actors died young. I refer to the explicit sex scene (actually explicit, not “explicit” the way some reviewers toss around the term), although it seems a body double was used for Golubyova, so there you go on that.

Herman Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, was widely reviled when it was published, just as Leos Carax’s film of Pierre has been generally maligned. Melville’s book came along in the wide wake of a little thing called Moby-Dick, and even if it had not, it’s a very strange novel—seemingly a put-on of a certain kind of fruity romantic tale, but stretched past the point of parody. It’s weird, but interesting-weird.

Carax’s Pola X is also interesting-weird. It, too, is a follow-up to a huge, oversized, mad opus, but Carax’s white whale was Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a magnificent folly that took its director nearly a decade to recover from. The title is an obscure joke; Pola is shorthand for Pierre, ou les ambiguities, the French title of the novel, and the X is for Carax’s tenth draft of the script. The plot remains from Melville: Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu), a young writer, drops out of his privileged life after he discovers the existence of an exotic half-sister (Yekaterina Golubyova)—she is from Yugoslavia, in the Carax version. Pierre moves to the poverty of bohemia, engages in an incestuous l’amour with his sister, and works on a truth-telling novel.

The early sequences, a languid life of sunshine and pretty shirts, are luscious. Catherine Deneuve plays Pierre’s mother, with whom he shares a golden aura and a peculiarly close relationship (they lounge on a bed together and call each other brother and sister). Throughout the film, Carax creates a sense of the real and the not-real; he repeatedly jars you with excess or artificiality—Deneuve’s stylized motorcycle ride being one example. The critics who hate Pola X seem to take it straight, in which case the film would indeed be pretentious, but to my eyes Carax views Pierre’s dissolution with an acidic sense of humor.

Based on his previous movies, Carax is certainly in thrall to the bohemian rhapsody of art, squalor, and love in extremis. But Pola X suggests a more mature distancing from the romantic dreams of youth (Carax has said he fell in love with the novel as a teenager), as though Carax has wised up about this stuff. Yet there is no retreat into irony. The explicit sex scene between Depardieu and Golubyova takes care of that, as Carax explores just how real a movie can get. (“Explicit” is used here in its proper sense, not the casual way people refer to soft-core scenes as explicit sex.)

Sometimes you like or dislike a movie not because it makes sense, or succeeds in fulfilling the conventional expectations of a film, but simply because, moment for moment, the movie holds you. I’m not sure how elaborately I could defend Pola X, but I loved watching it. Carax is able to sculpt his shots into passionately rendered artworks, and he can create crazy, unexpected worlds within the film, such as the warehouse-y building in which the starving artists create musical noise with a collection of metallic instruments. If Pola X is a failure, it is a more stimulating failure than most successful films.

Beau Travail (The Cornfield #38)

It’s one of those films with a final scene that unlocks the rest of the picture. So, some notes working backwards from that.

–Claire Denis departs from the general plot of her inspiration, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, in the final section of her film: no military trial or issues of the law. To the extent that Beau Travail has a plot, that is, being more a series of sequences depicting the training exercises of the members of a French Foreign Legion unit in Africa. Denis’ version of Melville’s Claggart, a tough officer named Galoup (Denis Lavant), narrates the picture from the aftermath of being drummed out of the corps. Thus it is his memories that we watch, these stray scenes of men marching and digging and exercising.

–The movie begins with scenes in a Djibouti nightclub and also ends there. And after it ends you realize the whole movie has been a dance, the early scenes showing the pleasant social and flirtatious dancing in the club, the bulk of the movie depicting the ritualized dance that is left to men without women: the marches and the fights and the careful streamlining of body and clothing. If this is Galoup’s vision of the life he mourns, then the close emphasis on the masculine body in movement can be fairly described as homoerotic; yet much of the energy behind Galoup’s behavior seems to be not so much desire as his unhappiness over being treated as a less-favored child by his aloof commander (Michel Subor). Galoup fears the loss of his status quo, his unreal paradise. (The commander is called Forestier, the name of the character Subor played in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat in 1963.)

–You don’t even see that much of the Billy Budd character, Sentain (Grégoire Colin); he is less an object of fascination than an annoying idea disrupting Galoup’s perfect world of good work. You do see him when he is alone on a desert march, although if everything is Galoup’s memory, Galoup must be daydreaming this section, perhaps to take himself off the hook.

–The compass Sentain was given to find his way back to the Legion camp, faulty to begin with, is later discovered, encrusted with salt left over from the evaporating Red Sea. Your compass will be wrecked by being here, because you don’t belong here. Denis, who grew up in colonial Africa, also made Chocolat and White Material in her childhood environs, and she has none of the white-person-goes-to-dark-continent mentality; the native people in this film occupy a specific role: outside the story proper but in secure, quiet ownership of the location.

–You can hear the sea in many scenes where you don’t see it. A reminder of Billy Budd, but also of the wildness and untameable thing that is the actual world. The military discipline that carries on in the foreground of the sea is the false world. A sharp crease in the dress trousers, the careful tucking of the bedsheets. The real world returns in Galoup’s last dance. Forestier, though a military man, sees it: he tells Galoup, “You put too much faith in appearances.” (Forestier has already found a way not to kill himself under these circumstances, by chewing the local herbal remedy and blissing out.)

–France is not at war. The soldiering so aggressively practiced will probably never be needed. These exercises played out in the prehistoric setting are happening for their own sake, executed to no purpose. But then that’s what exercises are. There’s marching, and sit-ups, and jogging in a circle while chanting, bodies moving and touching in formal ways, to keep the enormity of what surrounds them at bay. And the local people set up cheap tables and sell trinkets to the tourists, such as an antelope’s skull caked over with salt; and a man lies on a bed, its sheets newly and tightly folded, and considers the final moments of his life by conjuring up these postcards of the desert.

(More on Beau Travail next Sunday, August 21, when I talk about bodies in movies, at the Frye Art Museum; info here.)

It All Starts Today (The Cornfield #37)

From the Sep.-Oct. 2000 issue of Film Comment. A postscript to last week’s reprint of a Tavernier piece.

At the age at which directors are supposed to have settled into stateliness and comfortable shoes, Bertrand Tavernier keeps kicking against propriety. Though capable of working in a classical mode, Tavernier has spent much of the Nineties exploring a rough, jagged style; we might expect this of his young new-new-wave compatriots, but it’s especially refreshing coming from an eminence grise of French movies.

L.627 and Capitaine Conan (both of which I wrote about in FC Nov.-Dec. ’98) are sliced through with disorienting incidents, refusing to pursue a linear narrative. L.627 (1992) drops us into the chaotic and grungy world of police work, and Conan (1996) is the horrific confusion of World War I at trench level. L’Appat (Fresh Bait, 1995) is more conventionally structured, but open-endedly explores the moral void of young Parisians robbing and murdering for absurd reasons. For his latest film, It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui), Tavernier’s subject is the maddening state of the modern school system. The style is the same as the war movie and the policier, but it seems more daring here, since there isn’t an obvious genre reason for the approach—the violence expressed in the ragged mise-en-scene is more psychological than physical.

In synopsis, It All Starts Today sounds like a Ken Loach social-work movie. Tavernier’s leading man from Capitaine Conan, Philippe Torreton, stars here as a tough, empathetic grade-school teacher in a depressed town in northern France. (One of the town’s boosters wants to spin its image by declaring, “No more Germinal!”, but the dark cloud of failed industry hangs over the place.) The coal-haired Torreton, a seamless actor, brings some of the ferocity he had as Conan to the teacher’s struggles with the endless cycle of budget cuts, troubled children, irresponsible parents, and smothering bureaucracy. The echo of war is fitting, since It All Starts Today insists that only the toughest soldiers will survive the battles to make a livable world for kids.

Tavernier’s Nineties output has included a couple of documentaries, and those experiences may also have affected the feel of It All Starts Today. In other words, think of the film as having the shape of a war documentary: a handheld Steadicam used throughout, a loose approach to the ABCs of storytelling, the favoring of realism over aesthetics. The Torreton character, Daniel Lefebvre, begins the film by rising early in his country house and musing in a voice-over: “A story can unfold like a dream. You don’t decide when to fall asleep, when to awaken….You want to be caring, help your character, take him by the hand….” These unexpected bits of narration seem to address the film’s seemingly random movements, its life-and-nothing-but flow, as though the movie were out of the control of its director. (Not always: The graceful pan that takes us from a lesson in class to a schoolroom window, beyond which the funeral procession for a dead child passes, is a heartbreaking visual stroke worthy of Griffith or Ford.)

At work, Lefebvre spends at least as much time trying to improve (sometimes save) the lives of his kids as he does teaching them how to read and write. He blames himself for the tragic consequences that befall an alcoholic mother whose daughter is enrolled in his class, a subplot that takes most of the film to unfold. He also has trouble in his own home, when his girlfriend’s son is discovered to have been among the vandals who trashed the schoolhouse one night. (The girlfriend makes sculptures out of awkward pieces of metal, her own way of wrenching beauty out of the industrial past.) It All Starts Today might be read as The 400 Blows from the perspective of a sympathetic teacher.

The film’s dialogue is rife with statistics and complaints about the school system—occasionally a scene will turn into a shouting match, or simply depict teachers sitting around in a circle comparing woes. It’s as though Tavernier is admitting he has too much important information he wants to get out there, and is willing to vent his anger and frustration into undigested dialogue. Some of It All Starts Today plays like one of Godard’s Sixties movies, with a character staring into the camera and delivering unto us some portion of the revolutionary credo. In one scene, also an echo of Godard, an elegant middle-aged teacher speaks with an unseen interlocutor, and gives what appears to be a documentary interview about the decline in schools over the last twenty years. (The title itself, not referred to in the movie, is a stand-alone call to arms.)

It is, then, a somewhat unstable film. An American counterpart might be John Sayles’ City of Hope, which also shook an impassioned fist at crumbling civic infrastructure, though the visual and rhythmic busy-ness of It All Starts Today feels more organic—not merely a depiction of the gutters but right down there in them. It must be said that this brand of social-action picture runs the risk of undramatized issue-mongering, and Tavernier does not avoid the pitfalls: there are scenes that sit there, hectoring, while we may be forgiven for breathing, “Yes, Bertrand, we got it already,” under our breath. Thanks to the unmitigated pleasure of schoolkids putting on a show, and the un-handsome dynamism of Torreton, these lapses fade away by the time the film reaches its lovely conclusion.

The fact of the director taking this disorienting tack as he moves into his seventh decade is interesting in itself. He may be wary of the model of Ladmiral, the aged painter in Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country, who never achieved the depth and breadth of his contemporaries, the Impressionists, because of his inability or unwillingness to change his safe style. Say what you want about Tavernier’s recent work, but he has not been playing it safe.

Slacker

This movie is enjoying its official 20-year anniversary, so I thought I’d reprint an article I wrote about it, “Stranger Than Texas,” which appeared in Film Comment’s July-August 1990 issue. Yes—1990: 21years ago. Here’s how that happened: I saw Slacker at a 10 a.m. screening at the Seattle International Film Festival in May ’90, drawn by a catalog description that made it sound like my kind of movie; in those days I killed a lot of time in bookstores and cafes, working on projects that never turned into anything or staring off into space or reading. And I liked Slacker a lot, and I interviewed Richard Linklater in a noisy hospitality suite at a downtown hotel. Film Comment editor Richard T. Jameson was supportive when I said I liked this little movie, which didn’t have a distributor but had something. Linklater wrote me with more information and a copy of his first film and a Slacker crew T-shirt, and two months later the piece appeared and John Pierson read it (his account here) and although Slacker would’ve connected up with him anyway (Linklater had already pitched it to him), I was excited that the FC piece had formed a bit of the connective tissue. Linklater invited me to visit the set of Dazed and Confused, but Film Comment didn’t have the budget to send me, and I didn’t have the budget to send me, so I didn’t go, a decision I have always regretted. Here’s the Slacker piece,  a fond memory.

Among the 140some movies jumbled together for this year’s 16th Seattle International Film Festival, perhaps none was more ingratiatingly odd than Slacker, a new low-budget feature by director-writer-producer Richard Linklater. The soon-to-be-27-year-old auteur shot Slacker in 16mm over a couple of months last summer in Austin, Texas. He says the movie comes out of five years’ worth of notebook scribbles and a long-gestating desire to make a film about a teeming assortment of characters who are essentially unconnected, except by the movement of the film itself. Slacker sweeps through the coffeehouses, bookstores, bedrooms, and nightclubs of Austin, and discovers a world of wiggy philosophers, bored romantics, conspiracy enthusiasts, people who vanish and leave behind fictional explanations written on postcards, people who are catching up on a lot of sleep. Slackers.

Linklater is a Houston-born college dropout who eschewed film school in favor of the joys of dinking around with a super-8 camera. “I think film school’s real overrated,” he says. “You spend all year and make maybe one little five-minute movie with three people. Why not just go and make movies?”

Which is exactly what Linklater did. His first feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, was a brooding, nearly nonverbal super-8 opus ["It was pretty good. It took place on a train"] that found a responsive audience in Monte Hellman. Linklater raised most of the money for Slacker from friends and relatives, plus, he says, “everything I could come up with—credit cards, savings. We ended up finishing the movie, we got our first answer print back, for 23,000 bucks.” A sale to West German television (they’ll have quite a subtitling job on their hands) and a deferment-friendly cast and crew helped Linklater complete the movie and even pay off investors.

Slacker takes its look and feel from Austin’s college-town, melting-pot atmosphere. “West Campus—my neighborhood—is where all the students who either quit, or have already graduated but haven’t moved on to what they’re gonna do, are hanging out,” says Linklater. “They’re just killing time. So their education continues, but along unsupervised paths—the quest for knowledge and all that vigor is still there, you know. But there’s no action. It’s all ideas and words, but there’s really nothing happening. It’s pre-action. I don’t know if the action ever starts….”

This movie has a form similar to La Ronde, Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty, and, more recently, Chantal Akerman’s Toute Une Nuit: we follow a character only so long as he or she leads us to another character, then follow that person for a while, the another, and another…. Unlike the classical construction of La Ronde, Slacker never does circle back or return to any character. It simply travels across the warped, lonely, eccentric trajectories of dozens of peoples’ lives over a single dawn-to-dawn in Austin, dropping some souls just as they’re becoming interesting, allowing deadbeats to hang around a bit longer than they should, finding something appealing or distracting or just plain drop-dead peculiar in nearly everyone it glances across.

It begins with a guy arriving in Austin via bus and catching a taxi into town. (For a few seconds after the taxi drives out of the frame, the camera watches another cab pull into place—lingering over the possibility of another story about to start.) In the back of the cab, the guy, played by Linklater himself, performs the first of the film’s many offcenter monologues. With postgrad gee-whizdom he speculates on the way separate realities exist in the thing we decide not to do (like, what are the movies happening down each of the yellow-brick roads that Dorothy and the Scarecrow choose not to travel at that crossroads in The Wizard of Oz?). This crazy-quilt soliloquy sets the tone for the rest of the film, which drifts down roads not usually taken.

That’s one of the great things about Slacker: it’s full of the stuff that usually happens offscreen in movies, the scenes of quirkiness and tedium that generally disappear in favor of a plot. Since Slacker has no plot to advance, nothing is extraneous—everything in it is equally important and equally irrelevant. The most significant thing here is that the people keep moving, like fish swimming blindly upstream, and that they keep up their torrent of talk. Linklater’s people say the darndest things.

Most of the actors are nonprofessionals, either friends of the director or people he approached in the street and hired on the basis of their offbeat looks or personality. (The improvised look of the film is carefully scripted, though Linklater worked with the actors to shape their roles.) A lot of these characters are not people you’d want to sit next to during a cross-country bus ride, but they make vivid cameos. An expert in JFK-assassination conspiracy theories (John Slate) corners a woman in a used bookstore and delivers a hilariously earnest description of the Oswald-Ruby vortex. An ebullient ne-punk (Teresa Taylor) tries to sell a couple of acquaintances a true cultural relic: a Madonna pap smear. A UFO-spotter tags alongside a young man and lays out a theory connecting fake moon landings (“You know about the suppressed transmission, of course? No? Well…”), U.S.-Soviet relations, and disappearing children. “I just thought you ought to know,” he says at the end of it all—a line that characterizes many of the movie’s ear-benders.

But this film is no geekshow. Many of the characters achieve something like poignance. A memorable sidewalk scene: a woman from India, describing her homeland, pauses and tells her companion, “The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight.” Down the sidewalk and into the frame comes a poor, dear, hapless fellow (Frank Orral, lead singer of Poi Dog Pondering), whose subsequent disastrous encounters at a newspaper box and a coffeeshop suggest that, indeed, his days are surely numbered. For all this scene’s comedy—our last impression of the guy is the offscreen sound of a car screeching to a halt, roughly from the place where we saw him walk into the street—there’s something sweet and haunting about this encounter.

Slacker weaves its way through this digressive population as they cling to whatever will get them through the day—a cause or a conspiracy, a cup of coffee or a newspaper, anything to fill in the all-too-available hours. Linklater has a deadpan but always sympathetic approach to his people; his frequent method of playing scenes in long takes allows the characters to find their own rhythms, and eschews editorial comment. And just about the time you’re wondering how Linklater is going to wrap all this up, he glides into an unexpectedly giddy ending that also manages to be weirdly moving. This is a highly promising film. One character, who declares that he has given up on humanity at large, says, “I can only address myself to singular human beings now.” He’ll have to see Slacker—this movie is full of them.

The Tree of Life (The Cornfield #33)

Somewhere in Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time, the Russian director approvingly quotes an anecdote about Picasso responding to an interviewer’s question by offering a definitive statement of self-possession. The questioner asks about an artist’s “search,” to which Picasso snaps, “I don’t seek. I find.”

Terrence Malick would have to be categorized among the searchers. It’s funny that in talking about Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, writers have frequently mentioned the names of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick as measuring sticks for this head-trippy movie, because those directors (whether you care for their films or not) are surely finders, while Malick’s work looks like the struggle of a very serious person to figure out how he wants to say what he wants to say. Will he say it in 138 minutes, as the theatrical release of The Tree of Life has it, or will there be a six-hour version, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has hinted? The New World has already come out in three different versions, and while the extras on the Criterion release of The Thin Red Line contain a mere fifteen minutes of cut material, the testimony of the actors involved suggests many other plot lines considered during the actual filming but left aside during the editing safari.

What’s on screen is what counts. There is no single way to make a movie: you want to shoot things from precise storyboards and “cut in the camera” to a rigorously pre-determined design, great; you want to carry a camera into an partly improvised situation and shoot hundreds of hours of material that can later allow the filmmakers to “find” the movie in the editing room, also great. It is not important to know that Malick’s approach puts him in the latter camp, but the evidence onscreen does, in his case, reflect the sifting-out method.

I found The Thin Red Line a largely hypnotic experience, so Malick’s style – the contemplation of nature and objects, frequently divorced from anything like storytelling; the near-musical use of narration; the curlicues of scenes that suggest some larger sequence tantalizingly shorn away – is not something I abhor. It’s the “what he wants to say” part that is increasingly a problem. The New World certainly summoned up a sense of rapture in its waving leaves of grass, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the whole thing boiled down to an alarmingly banal recap of the Paradise Bespoiled scenario, rendered with very few surprises.

You may have heard about The Tree of Life. Corporate man (Sean Penn) recalls past life as child in Texas, punctuated by an extended detour through images that suggest the Big Bang, a brief account of dinosaurs demonstrating how we might all get along (in contrast, perhaps, to Kubrick’s declaration of monkey violence as the Dawn of Man in 2001), and shots of the Earth being born, with possible connection between founding of planet and conjoining of sperm/egg. Most of the film is the Texas material, which is achingly exact in its re-creation of a world: I didn’t live anything like that childhood, save for fleeting visits to midwestern grandmothers’ houses, yet Malick’s view down the rows of long, long front lawns is like an ancestral memory shared by all of us in some mysterious way, even if we mostly recall it from a Ray Bradbury novel. Malick deserves praise for his vision of that (and for the marvelous acting of the three boys who play brothers, and for Brad Pitt’s strong performance).

It’s vivid and fine, yet the longer it goes on, the greater the sense of floundering becomes. Even filmmakers who “seek” can carry a sense of authority into their work. Wong Kar-Wai, another director who makes movies out of last-minute inspiration and the journey of the editing room - carving a movie out of a mound of raw material or switching gears in mid-production - has that quality: I like some of his movies (Chungking Express) and don’t care for others (Happy Together), and I deduce that part of the unevenness of his oeuvre comes from his assemblage methods; yet the authority is always there, in each shot and cut. Malick, more so in this film than before, is searching. There are people who find this search enthralling, and I like the searchiness of The Tree of Life too, sort of. If only the ideas at the end of the search didn’t seem so simple.

But, you’re saying, it’s not about the ideas; it’s about creating an experience, a journey. Or, it’s about sheer filmmaking dazzle: the ideas contained in, say, Metropolis are utterly banal, but the movie itself gives off thrills like an electrical storm. (Of course, you look up “authority” in the film dictionary, and you see Fritz Lang.) Many ecstatic critics/reviewers/dudeswithablog are having those kinds of thrills with The Tree of Life, some of which is fascinating to read, some of which feels like the need to claim a movie as “ours,” in the way that every generation would like to discover its 2001, and not be one of those naysayers proven wrong by film history.

Still, I say nay. And will leave it at that for now: I have a whole thing about the use of Klassical Greatest Hits and Murnau and the “Moldau” I’ll get to at some point. (I reviewed the film for the Herald, and my review is here.) I hope to write about The Tree of Life again when I’ve seen it a second time, preferably before it emerges in its six-hour form. But I have the feeling I’ll still cringe as often as I swoon.

Writing about Lars Von Trier (The Cornfield #29)

Lars von Trier got himself in trouble last week with comments he made after the Cannes Film Festival screening of his latest, Melancholia. In a parallel story, the world proved that it no longer had the ability to recognize a joke when it heard one. Jesus Christ, people. I’m not sure which was more absurd, the outrage of the literalists or the tortured explanations (“I think what Lars meant was…”) of von Trier’s message-board explicators.

I am an admirer of this director’s films. Some of my past writing on the subject is posted below. Note the variety of descriptive terms for von Trier over the years: scalawag, scamp, genius-crackpot, evil sprite, and, of course, “Danish.” I still haven’t seen The Idiots, and haven’t written about Antichrist—yet. We begin with an “intro to” von Trier written 15 years ago, in which I try to suggest the spirit of his work, and then we just keep going.

Von Trier: An Introduction

I think I wrote this general intro to Lars von Trier in 1996 for Film.com, although I don’t remember why.

The end of the four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza called The Kingdom brings us to the loopy story’s bloodiest and most insane moment. This combination of “The Outer Limits” and “General Hospital” has screamed right off its rails, climaxed in horror, and then halted in a completely white screen. The end credits begin to roll, and standing before us is a bland young man, dimpled and handsome. He has all the presence of a grocery clerk, a waiter, or the innocuous-looking boy who lives down the block and poisons kittens. After taking his hands away from his eyes, this man assures us that the story of The Kingdom will continue, and encourages us not to hide our eyes from the nastiness on the screen (it’s only stage blood, anyway), because “Behind closed eyes is where the real horror begins.” Then he holds up a severed head and introduces himself: “My name is Lars von Trier, and I wish you all a very good evening.”

The Kingdom was originally produced for Danish TV, which just reinforces the sense of von Trier updating the puckish emcee role from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He’s also made cameo appearances in his own films, though with his own strange emphasis; in The Element of Crime he’s a bald clerk, billed as the “Schmuck of Ages.” But Lars von Trier hasn’t settled into any conventional genre or style, and his similarities to Hitchcock pretty much end there; when the video-store guy handed me a copy of Zentropa and read that the label categorized the movie as a “thriller,” I had to clear my throat and point out that, well, it wasn’t exactly a thriller in the usual sense. There’s nothing usual about von Trier’s movies.

He was born in 1956 and attended the Danish Film School, where he made a handful of award-winning student films. Von Trier’s first feature, The Element of Crime (1984), established the ground rules for his “Trilogy of Europe,” which was continued in Epidemic (1987), the artiest and least satisfying of his films, and Zentropa (aka Europa, 1991). A decidedly postmodern take on the cop movie, Element borrows from all over film history (noticeably Casablanca, Metropolis, M, and The Third Man) but rarely seems slavish, or anything but original. The hero goes tromping through a blasted landscape, ostensibly searching for a child killer but apparently on a more existential quest. From time to time, someone can be heard asking, “Where is the story?”, and von Trier is quite content to wander away from answering that question, content instead to pull off the occasional eye-popping camera movement; there are tracking shots here that manage to evoke both Orson Welles and Sam Raimi at the same crazy moment.

Von Trier also uses monochromatic color and the idea of hypnosis, two running gags in the trilogy. Hypnosis is compared to movie-watching itself; the cop in Element experiences mesmerism at the beginning of the film, and then pleads at the end, “I want to wake up now…”, but the film just fades out. In Epidemic, a film-within-a-film about a coming plague starring von Trier as a director, there is a character named Dr. Mesmer, and the shudder-inducing climax (in which von Trier proves that if he wanted to make a straight horror movie, he could easily freak us out) explodes when a hypnotic session becomes unglued.

Then there is the opening of Zentropa, which gazes down onto moving train tracks as a voice (the sleep-inducing tones of Max Von Sydow, no less) puts the audience under a hypnotic spell. Now, this is actually scary. You sit there wondering if hypnosis could actually be induced by a movie, and then notice that perhaps your eyes are really getting heavy. The rest of the film is a dream of back projections, model work, special effects…a miniature train set of a movie. The hero, an American in 1945 Germany, gets a job as a sleeping-car conductor (an absurdity that the movie leaves cheerfully unelaborated). His uncle, who also works on the train, describes his weird feeling of waking up in the sleeping car and not knowing whether the train is going forward or backward; that’s a handy metaphor for the movie, which delights in disorientation, just as it leaves its hero gasping for air.

Zentropa brought von Trier international acclaim, as well as the Special Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (According to Roger Ebert, when he lost the Palme d’Or to Barton Fink, von Trier flipped the jury the bird.) At that point, the director looked easy to peg: a chilly intellectual, an impertinent trickster, a man who makes movies from his brain, not his guts. But something changed with von Trier around the time of The Kingdom (1994), which has an open, improvisatory texture. Aside from its busy, headlong style, mostly shot with a handheld camera, The Kingdom also has a compulsively watchable story, with at least a dozen main characters involved in all manner of melodrama; in its own way, it’s as chewily entertaining as Gone With the Wind or The Godfather.

Given von Trier’s evolution, Breaking the Waves (1996) makes perfect sense; he has said, “The philosophy for my other films has been ‘Evil Exists.’ The philosophy for this one is ‘Goodness Exists.’” The story is once again a dizzying mix of inspirations, from the spiritual intensity of von Trier’s god (and fellow Danish film-maker) Carl Dreyer to the sublime tackiness of the 1970s pop songbook. But the tale of a Scots woman who clings to her faith despite a harrowing series of disasters is von Trier’s most emotionally direct picture yet. He has said that the movie’s dry, leached-out look (like The Kingdom, it was shot on film, transferred to video, and then back to film) is necessary to counterpoint the three-handkerchief scenario. The result is a movie that truly puts an audience through an experience, a strange kind of enchantment.

If von Trier is no longer an entirely gloomy Dane, he still is marked by contradictions. His next film will be a return to the creepy hallways of The Kingdom, with another set of episodes shot during the summer of 1996. He has announced a film called Khan to be filmed in Mongolia in ’97. Most intriguingly, he is working on an ongoing project called Dimension (featuring a frequent collaborator, the deliciously decadent former Warhol star Udo Kier), which he is shooting in three-minute increments every year; it will be completed in 2004. For a man who lavishes his attention on disease, early death, and the coming apocalypse, he’s nothing if not confident.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Exceprted from a Film Comment(Nov./Dec. 1996) New York Film Festival wrap-up surveying a bunch of titles from that year. And what a year at NYFF: two titles later became #1 and #2 in my best-of-year accounting for ’96: How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life and Breaking the Waves.

The two most transporting items in the New York Festival catalog were a world, and a generation, apart. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was one of them, a film that needs no introduction. The other was Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a nod to the awesome intensity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, filtered through a few 1970s hits. This movie may need no introduction either, especially to Film Comment readers who have already boned up on previous film festival reports from earlier this year. It charts the tribulations of a young woman in a repressive Scottish coastal town, and engages a rather old-fashioned fable of faith in the skin of an experimental movie (von Trier shot it in 35mm., printed it on video, then transferred it back to 35—lending a browned-out dullness to the visuals). It’s a big film, gutsy, likely to repel as many people as it captures. But it gives you a journey rare in the current cinema, a sense that you’ve traveled as far as you can possibly go, and that you’ll have something to think and talk about on the way back. Vertigo does that, too.

Among the heroes here are luminous Emily Watson, as the waif of faith, and Katrin Cartlidge, as her skeptical friend (who is made up to look like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons). Also cinematographer Robby Müller. The man who shot the rich, evocative images of The American Friend, etc., gives himself over to von Trier’s hand-held, harsh-lit scheme—how many great lensmen would be that adventurous? When I think about Breaking the Waves, I keep coming back to Continue reading

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