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04/25/12 4:00am

In the years following any artist’s speculation about the future, it becomes clear that what his predictions really reveal most about is the time in which the predictions were made. The present, with its apocalyptic visions of a primitive future—seen in The Road, the sixth section in Cloud Atlas, Michael Haneke’s Time Of The Wolf—lead one to observe a backlash against the technology-soaked present.

This idea of a backlash against technological development was foremost in mind as I watched Brooklynite filmmaker Ben Dickinson’s debut feature First Winter, at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is about a group of yoga-loving twentysomethings trapped without modern amenities at an Upstate retreat after an apocalyptic event. They must resort to a primitive existence to survive: making fires for warmth, rationing food, hunting deer. Through this ordeal, they still have quotidian arguments and desires that no one would find unfamiliar— sexual jealousy, greed for resources. One of the striking things about the film is how it depicts young people remaining very much themselves while living a technology-free existence. Does our future hold a rebellion against technology, a return to the land, perhaps engineered by the same kinds of people who embrace technology today? The question First Winter poses is, if technology is polluting how we think, will returning to the land be enough?

“I don’t think that this is a problem that can be solved with better design,” Dickinson tells me as I interview him and his producer/actress Lindsay Burdge. “We have this idea —it comes from our obsession with the scientific method—that if we could just design things a little better, things would work better. If Facebook would just turn off every ten minutes, it would be okay. The solutions are always like that—if you could just have this chip that keeps your kids from watching porn, you’ll be okay. If we could just come up with the perfect way to teach, or if the school was just designed better. The conversation in progressivism is always about design—how do we design out our problems?” His voice reaches an impassioned pitch: “But I don’t think we can because the problem is us. The problem is humans and how we interact with each other. In a yoga community, even though you’re removing yourself from the madness of the technological world, the same problems are all there.”

Dickinson and Burdge both went to NYU, and had been living in New York for ten and seven years, respectively, when they were introduced to Heartland, the yoga retreat in Campbell Hall, New York where the film was shot. After graduating from NYU in 2004, Dickinson co-founded Waverly Films, a production company, and cut his teeth directing music videos for The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Living in Brooklyn, Burdge explains (her in Williamsburg and him in Clinton Hill), she and Dickinson felt like “We were doing as much as we could. We were riding our bikes, we had a garden on our roof, we were going to the co-op. It was basically a moment where it was like, are we going to move to California, or are we going to find some way to make this work?” “I think like we felt like we were spinning in a hamster wheel,” Dickinson adds. “I was making commercials to make money so that I could live here to make more commercials to make more money. Lindsay was producing, and we both had this feeling of, what the fuck are we doing? We came here to make movies.”

05/19/11 11:24am

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It’s becoming a little disconcerting just how often fantastically panned films wind up being pretty freaking solid. Anyone who’s seen Heaven’s Gate knows what I’m referring to—Michael Cimino’s epic Western disaster, the film that ruined United Artists, is actually very compelling and well-made (if not without its issues, like most others). The same principle applies for Ishtar, Elaine May’s 1987 return to directing after an 11-year hiatus following the poorly received Mikey and Nicky (an absolutely fantastic film): plagued by well-publicized cost overruns and creative clashes, universally panned upon its release, and an unmitigated commercial disaster, Ishtar effectively ended May’s career as a director.

However, critical consensus being a shifting thing (in the best-case scenarios), the past 24 years have seen a change of heart. Seeing the director’s cut of Ishtar on Tuesday night at the 92nd Street Y—the first time this cut has ever been screened publicly—I could see why.

The film absolutely sprints, rattling off one bizarre (and bizarrely funny) joke after another, and with Dustin Hoffman (excellent) and Warren Beatty (merely good) starring as horrifically untalented musicians who become embroiled in a coup in Morocco, its absurdist humor is strengthened by the filmmaker’s understanding of just how bizarre some of the CIA’s foreign operations really are. That the film, which features Charles Grodin as a CIA operative, was made in the 80s, with our government clandestinely supporting dictators galore, is totally logical; and yet the film’s aggressive cutting and whip-fast pacing are clearly ahead of its time. Ishtar now seems like an only slightly less ridiculous progenitor of the merciless lickety-split style exemplified by In The Loop. In a climate where “mega-budget comedy” meant Beverly Hills Cop II, it’s easy to see why the film wasn’t received well by audiences—or studio execs—who expected a mainstream blockbuster.

May—who was on hand for a rare public appearance—spoke after the screening about just what may have done the film in. “[Then-Columbia Pictures head] David Puttnam was English, and you know, we respect that in Hollywood,” May quipped. “He had had a falling out with Dustin. When the movie came out—we had three previews, and they went really well. And then I heard from Warren that there was an article in the Los Angeles Times, and that Puttnam had wiped us out. He said the same thing he said about Dustin before—we should be spanked, we spent too much money, he was going to reform Hollywood—because the British film industry makes so much money. It was really sort of unforgivable what he did. He attacked his own movie. Mike Nichols, my partner, said it was like an entire studio committing suicide—they all just went with him. Puttnam did something that no studio head had ever done before—he actually released the budget to the press. The head of our own studio.” May went on to share her own thoughts about the film-as-flop’s reception: “If half the people who made cracks about Ishtar had actually seen it, I would be a rich woman.”

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May also related the story of how she wound up directing to begin with: she had written A New Leaf (pictured, with May and costar Walter Matthau), which was set to be put into production. “I told the studio I wanted director approval,” she explained. “They told me that I couldn’t have director approval, but I could direct.” She laughed, along with everyone else in the auditorium. “So I directed. I didn’t know the first thing about it. I thought that one of the big lights on the first day of shooting was the camera. One of the guys whispered to me that the camera wasn’t there yet. I also didn’t know that you were supposed to cover a movie—to shoot more than one angle so you could make cuts. So the first week of shooting, I was four weeks ahead of schedule. I went into the editing room and said, this scene is too long, take that out, and the editor said, I can’t, you have no coverage. The next week I was four weeks behind schedule.”

As her subsequent work evidences, she learned. Moderator David Schwartz (a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image) pointed out that Ishtar was the last film that May had directed. “This is such a beautifully made film, it should’ve led to more directing,” he said. “Well, it should have,” May replied. Pregnant pause, and then: “But it didn’t.” It’s the film world’s loss.

Apparently, after some delays, Ishtar will be coming to Blu-Ray soon. One can only hope.

04/11/11 3:02pm

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If Todd Haynes is a shape-shifter of sorts, he’s a shape-shifter who nevertheless maintains his quiddity from project to project; like David Bowie, the chameleon musician Haynes took on with 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, his varied projects all come from a singular perspective. Whether he’s interrogating suburban malaise (Safe), suburban malaise as well as the cinematic representation thereof (Far From Heaven), larger-than-life pop icons (Goldmine, I’m Not There, Superstar), or societal issues (Poison), Haynes constantly weaves intertextual cultural reference points into his works, creating a semiotic web that enables him to provide meaning by way of referencing.

It’s for these reasons one starts off wary of Mildred Pierce, Haynes’s HBO miniseries, which concluded last night. It has the pop-culture touchpoints that a post-structuralist filmmaker like Haynes dreams about: a novel by famed pulp author James M. Cain; and a classic Hollywood adaptation for which Joan Crawford won her only Academy Award.

And yet, to watch the series—as well as hear Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond in conversation with Greil Marcus at the New School on the evening of Thursday, April 7th—is to see that for once, Haynes has made a work that is, as J. Hoberman put it, devoid of quotation marks. There’s nothing ironic or self-deconstructing about Haynes’s straightforward take on the rise and fall of one terribly determined suburban woman, and her frightfully difficult daughter, set in the most-unironic 1930s.

“When I first read the book, it was as the financial markets were tumbling in ’08, and I felt like it was very timely,” Haynes explained. “We thought about modernizing it, but only briefly. In fact, we decided we wanted to show the depression in a way it hadn’t been shown before, as an era that felt lived-in. The previous film doesn’t really touch on the depression.” Indeed, while Haynes and Raymond seemed to hold reverence for the source novel, they mostly spoke of the original Michael Curtiz film to distance themselves from it. Raymond, in fact, hadn’t even seen the original film until the day before the panel. “Todd understandably wanted to give Mildred a more multifaceted characterization than what is portrayed in the original film,” Raymond explained.

Kate Winslet in Hayness Mildred Pierce.

  • Kate Winslet in Haynes’s Mildred Pierce.

Greil Marcus, conducting the discussion on behalf of the New School’s “Noir Now” series of lectures and talks on film noir, seemed intent on steering the contemporary Mildred Pierce toward a noir label, which Haynes resisted. Marcus commented that the scene in which Mildred takes an interview as a potential housekeeper is in effect not dissimilar from a cop going to interrogate a rich female suspect, which felt like something of a stretch. “Whether the film is noir or not, it’s wrapped up in the pathologies of the mother/daughter relationship,” Haynes said later on in the evening. “Mildred has given an enormous amount of power to her daughter, and through her desire for her daughter’s love, she has created Veda. She has allowed Veda to trap her in Veda’s web. It’s about the push/pull of maternal melodrama.” Certainly the epitome of the film’s “maternal melodrama” is found in a scene in Episode 5, when Mildred kisses her sleeping daughter on the mouth; this clip was one of four that was shown to the audience and discussed. “The kiss is kind of like the gateway into this reunion as the apotheosis of Mildred’s life,” Raymond noted. “I don’t think it’s sexual,” Haynes added. “I think it’s a communion with herself. Veda is an extension of herself. It’s not sexual, but it’s almost masturbatory.”

With regard to the deeply intricate relationships probed in the miniseries, one cannot go far without noting Jon Raymond’s certain enormous impact. Raymond, who has written or co-written the latest three Kelly Reichardt films—all excellent—makes his presence clearly felt here, with a simplicity of storytelling and characterization that, alongside the miniseries’ strong class consciousness, is almost enough to situate Mildred Pierce somewhere between a Todd Haynes film and a Kelly Reichardt film. The series’s ginger pacing and (mostly) subtle characterizations recalls Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff—three films for which Raymond evidently deserves much of the credit.

The eventually, inevitably rolled around to the question of just how different this picture was for Haynes. His answer belied a narrative game that perhaps he was playing all along, if only in his own head: “Naturalism is still constructed,” he said. “It’s still a narrative mode. I was conscious that the film was geared toward a different audience than what I’m used to.” Could it be that that was Haynes’s trick all along? One of our most postmodern filmmakers doing a “straight” story is itself is the irony? Perhaps, but if so, it’s a narrative game between Haynes and himself.

12/03/10 6:00am

Bhutto
Directed by Duane Baughman

The American support of the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union is often underplayed in contemporary media, it seems. When one considers how crucial the Middle East is to America’s diplomacy today, it would seem obvious to point out that U.S. foreign policy, by subsidizing the Mujahideen and providing them with serious artillery, created its own worst enemy. Oddly enough, that is one of the points that comes across with striking clarity in Bhutto, Duane Baughman’s documentary that ostensibly centers on the first female leader of an Islamic nation.

Perhaps “ostensibly” is an unfair word: the film is very much concerned with the narrative arc and character of Benazir Bhutto, who comes across as an engrossing, admirable figure. Yet some of the most fascinating segments in Bhutto come when Baughman is exposing some of the backroom dealmaking that led to the Middle East (and especially Pakistan) becoming the powder keg of Islamic fundamentalism that it is today. As today’s politicos constantly wax anxious over the possibility of Iran or North Korea getting “the bomb,” it’s interesting that there isn’t more stress over the fact that Pakistan, an equally volatile country with a powerful anti-U.S. contingent, already has quite a few. Pakistan’s nuclear program began under General Mohammad Zia, essentially a military dictator who had no fear of the U.S. because of Ronald Reagan’s accommodating stance: Reagan needed Zia to help the U.S. fund key anti-Soviet movement, and Zia, who had instituted Sharia law in Pakistan, kindly led the U.S. to a group led by a guy named Osama bin Laden.

When not glossing the ironic idiocies of U.S. foreign policy, Baughman does put together a moving portrait of a woman who seemed well aware of her odds of survival upon return to a newly hostile Pakistan, led at the time by a newer General—Pervez Musharraf. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when Bhutto’s oldest daughter recounts her mother wishing her a happy 18th birthday a month in advance, days before her return to Pakistan after her eight years of exile. Bhutto lasted a little over two months back before she was assassinated. The film presents Bhutto—born into a Pakistani family of wealth and political clout that has been referred to as the “Kennedys of Pakistan”—as having viewed political service as a moral obligation for a woman of her position. In a family with one extremist brother who probably couldn’t have made it as a Pakistani politician (Murtaza) and another who was poisoned at age 27 (Shanawaz), Benazir was the clan’s best hope for a politician to build upon the legacy of their father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was a powerful progressive Prime Minister of the nation from 1973 to 1977.

Bhutto, ultimately, is a film as compelling as the audience’s interest in its subject matter—for those who are eager to learn more about the devilishly tricky political considerations of a complex nation like Pakistan, it’s a stimulating doc. However, its strongest moments, regarding the irony of how the U.S. helped create the modern Middle East, are somewhat parenthetical entries in the larger scope of the film—parenthetical entries that certainly deserve a documentary of their own.

Opens December 3

11/03/10 4:00am

Client 9

Directed by Alex Gibney


We all know the story—right? Crusading governor gets caught up in an ethics malfunction that screams irony of the highest order. With how narratives get quickly packaged, sold and duplicated in contemporary media, it was easy to take a few quick glances at the train wreck that was Eliot Spitzer’s downfall and move on. But then, of course, a few loose threads do announce themselves—if Spitzer was a major focus of a federal investigation, why was he never charged with anything? And if this was about political viability, why was there so little outrage when Governor Mark Sanford or Senator John Ensign’s extramarital liaisons were exposed, post-Spitzer?


Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) has put together a masterful piece of investigative reporting with Client 9. The theory he sets out to explore is that Spitzer’s vociferous anti-Wall Street agenda as New York’s Attorney General, as well as his aggressively reformist attitude whilst Governor, led to a downfall that could have been a political/corporate hit. Cast in the villain spotlight, although not without being given ample facetime themselves, are financier Ken Langone, former AIG chief Hank Greenberg, and political hitman Roger Stone. While Langone and Greenberg cast themselves as mere bystanders to Spitzer’s downfall, Stone seems to perhaps be embellishing his contributions for glory’s sake—he tells a story about a conversation with a prostitute who serviced Spitzer (which he later related to the FBI) that doesn’t check out with interview findings from the prostitute whom Spitzer saw most often (who was not Ashley Dupre, but has actually remained unknown: Gibney interviewed her but she refused to be shown on film, so an actress, Gibney explains, plays her in the doc). That Gibney managed to rope all these characters in is impressive, and provides for something like a comprehensive view of the scenario he’s theorizing about. The only missing piece is Michael Garcia, the US Attorney (appointed by the Bush Administration) who led the investigation that uncovered Spitzer’s misdeeds. The key piece in Gibney’s argument is that Garcia and the FBI’s investigation began in response to a single $6,000 wire transfer Spitzer made; such transfers, we are informed, occur by the hundreds every day, and do not typically set off federal concern. It seems a bit haphazard to mount a federal investigation on the basis of one such random transfer.


Extremely affecting are segments with Spitzer himself, whose interview is featured prominently. Most poignant is a moment toward the end of the film, where Gibney tosses Spitzer what appears to be a softball, though perhaps it’s merely a softball in disguise. “Do you ever feel like there were forces conspiring to help engineer your downfall?” Gibney asks, after having presented a film that makes a clear case for just that. “No,” Spitzer responds simply. “I did this to myself, I’m the one to blame. I brought myself down.” It’s a humbling moment of pathos in a film that is wrapped up, often, with who did what to whom, and who had something to gain in X situation. Partly a hypothesis about various political agendas, partly a look into the shattered psyche of a once-unshakeable man, Client 9 provides both an intellectual critique of our political system as well as a humanist portrayal of what that system can wreak.


Opens November 5

08/27/10 1:00am

Centurion
Directed by Neil Marshall

The opening titles of Centurion, rushing at the camera in a brown and gold font seemingly ripped out of a 90s CD-ROM game, set against a vast winter landscape that somehow fails to impress, have the bizarre effect of looking cheesy while still reminding the viewer that they could have looked really badass. It’s a fitting metaphor for the rest of the picture.

Situating itself somewhere between war buddy movies like The Dirty Dozen or Inglourious Basterds and the recent spate of classics-era combat epics (300, Clash of the Titans), Centurion is not lacking in formula. Following a genre map to the endpoint of audience satisfaction is hardly to be frowned upon a priori, and is understandable when that film’s budget (in this case, approximately $15 million) climbs far higher than those of its stars’ (Michael Fassbender, Dominic West) previous leading-man efforts. Yet like its opening credits, Centurion proper fails to do much with the genre resources that it has been given by—or rather, has taken from—other, better movies.

The film is set in 117 AD, the peak of the Roman Empire. The Romans did pretty well for themselves, it turns out. However, they are coming up against a strong guerilla opposition in northern Britain, from a bunch of savage locals known as the Picts. Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), who survives a Pict raid in the opening sequence, winds up leading a band of Roman soldiers who survived a Pict massacre deeper into enemy territory, in order to save their captured General Virilus (Dominic West). As one can imagine, bonding, arguing, and combat all ensue in good measure.

There isn’t much of a secret to Centurion‘s lack of appeal. Simply put, the film is not particularly well written. These war buddy movies typically thrive off of a certain dark wit which seems to fit naturally against the perpetual threat of imminent death (think of the semi-comparable, and far superior, Lebanon, and that story about Shmulik’s teacher!). Yet the laughs in Centurion are few and far between, if they come at all. Without any seriously compelling dialogue or conflict between characters, the film’s emotional dynamics remain as flat and predictable as a piece of cardboard. Characters are often provided with one reveal, typically contrived (the good soldier who turns out to be Bad, as the formula dictates, etc.). Even Fassbender, already one of the most exciting actors in cinema today, can only do so much to flesh out Centurion. Sure he’s brave, dashing, and so on, but the compelling personal details simply aren’t there in the writing.

Centurion was written and directed by Neil Marshall, who made horror hit The Descent. Writing may not be his strong suit, but, well, directing isn’t exactly his forte either. Marshall shoots his action in the contemporary-classics mode, with a fast shutter speed that makes the slightly sped-up action appear cartoonish. While this is sometimes an effective technique, Centurion leads one to question whether this fad is losing its charm, or if Marshall simply didn’t employ it well. Either way, the action sequences end up being the dullest in the film, as the fight choreography goes through the redundant motions from one battle to the next. How many times can you see someone get axed in the head before yawns commence? Additionally, Marshall makes the mistake of having bright-red blood spurt out of the wounds of killed combatants, a sort of directorial signature that just looks silly against the film’s dark and dismal palette.

The one bright spot in Centurion, as mentioned earlier, is Fassbender. After kicking around TV for seven years, he finally made his presence felt as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger. The six-foot-tall actor dropped down to a truly emaciated 127 pounds to play the role of the hunger-striking prisoner. Few performances, if any, come to mind that have displayed greater commitment. Between that and the way he showcased Sands’ brutal, quiet determination in a 22-minute conversation in the middle of the film, which included a 17-minute take, it was obvious that this actor had a combination of drive and skill rarely seen in performers today. After giving the most entertaining performance in Inglourious Basterds (“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s”), he carried Andrea Arnold’s otherwise average Fish Tank, and earned an extra gold star from the Times‘ Manohla Dargis for his performance in Jonah Hex, of all things. With big roles in the next films from David Cronenberg and Steven Soderbergh forthcoming (as well as playing the villain in X-Men: First Class), it’s obvious he’s destined for very big things. Clearly an artist in his own right, there’s no question that his success is our good fortune.

Opens August 27

08/04/10 4:00am


Middle Men


Directed by George Gallo

It’s no longer a McLuhan-level insight to explain that mediums rub off on one another. Think of how talky Hollywood rom-coms in the 90s came to be directed with the staid nothingness of the TV sitcoms which seemed to own the decade; think of how the handheld digital video camera boom of the early aughts seemed to legitimize shaky, unfocused cinematography, all the way from The Blair Witch Project to Hannah Takes The Stairs. Sadly, we may have now reached the point where the internet, with its continual presentation of new, context-free pieces of information and almost non-sequitur rapid shifts for the sake of a few moments of “fresh” entertainment, is beginning to rub off on how movies are made. That is the sense one walks away from Middle Men with, a formulaic rise-to-the-top-and-down-and-sink-back-down-again flick from George Gallo, starring the dreadfully miscast Luke Wilson, who seems incapable of doing anything right these days.

Middle Men begins with a rapid montage of random men masturbating, women in skimpy outfits (and less) gyrating for the camera, and a voice-over from Wilson explaining how, in the 90s, he created a company that helped men jerk off easier. Utterly unhelpful to the film in any meaningful way (as in, say, establishing character or narrative in a more concrete fashion), this intro is not dissimilar from those Flash landing pages you would see so often in the late 90s, with a visually stimulating but wholly unnecessary Flash intro. Sadly, here there is no “skip” option. As the film becomes the story of both Texas businessman Jack Harris (Wilson) and LA computer geeks Wayne (Giovanni Ribisi) and Buck (Gabriel Macht), the narrative continues to lurch with fits and starts from one scene to the next, guided artificially by Wilson’s voice over, without ever progressing in an organic fashion. It’s like a YouTube highlight reel of what should, in theory, be the most entertaining scenes of a longer film. The film’s schizophrenia continues with its color palette, which goes from one end of the spectrum (gritty, washed-out for Wayne and Buck) to another (clean and bright for Harris’ life) in a contrast so garish and obvious as to preclude any possibility of artistry. Another problem is Wilson, who is completely wrong for the role of a sharp, shrewd businessman—never believable in an impassioned state, he seems perpetually cursed to live in the realm of slightly aloof characters who are one step removed from their immediate surroundings.

Generally speaking, the film seems to try to hold our attention by throwing as many different elements as possible at us from one moment to the next: Russian mobsters, a sleazy lawyer (James Caan—who only serves to remind us that at one point, he and Wilson made a film called Bottle Rocket together), an accidental murder, Harris leaving his wife for a 23-year-old porn star. While this highlight-reel structure is entertaining on a base level, it’s ultimately unsatisfying. It’s not dissimilar, perhaps appropriately, from the changes that have occurred in porn films themselves in the internet age. No longer do we get narrative feature porn flicks with actual storylines, absurd as they may be; instead, clip-aggregator sites like PornoTube have become the locus of porn viewing, which feature context-less sex much in the same way that Middle Men tries to present context-less set-piece sequences. In both cases, the entertainment presents the thing itself, squarely, without any of the contextualization and continuity that allows for a deeper understanding of what we’re viewing. One is reminded of a comment David Foster Wallace made regarding television: roughly, “watching TV is like eating candy. For a little while, it feels great, until you realize your stomach hurts and you begin to wish you had had something nutritional.”

07/07/10 3:00am



The Girl Who Played With Fire

Directed by Daniel Alfredson

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy likes to have it both ways. Playing amongst the art-house set due to a small release by tiny distributor Music Box Films, the first entry in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, has grossed almost $8 million domestically. (Someone, somewhere at IFC Films is kicking themselves.) That the film did so well is a testament to having both art-house cred (foreign-language film, journalistic indictment of large societal forces) as well as some more, shall we say, conventional elements (sex scenes with a gorgeous woman and extreme violence—items found so rarely in commercial cinema!). Herein lies the rub with Dragon Tattoo: by functioning as both critique (in this case, of misogyny) as well as sensationalistic sexual thriller, it fetishized the same prurient desires it purported to condemn.

The same rub is found in the second film in trilogy, helmed by Daniel Alfredson as opposed to Tattoo‘s Niels Arden Oplev. The film picks up with our heroes, tattooed hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and reporter Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) not long after Dragon Tattoo left off. Back at Milennium magazine, Blomqvist has hired an investigative journalist in the midst of an expose on government officials patronizing prostitutes who are part of a sex trafficking ring; when said journalist and his girlfriend are murdered, the unknown powers-that-be frame Salander for the murder. Out of touch with one another for some time, Salander’s and Blomqvist’s paths are set to converge as they both work to get to the bottom of who runs the ring, and who is framing her.

At its best, the film plays as a sort of C-grade neo-noir take on the major-critique-of-unshakeable-power-structures movie (the uber-work in this vein being The Wire); in that regard, it’s not dissimilar from the recent Red Riding trilogy, a British series that also updates noir elements (lone courageous—and sometimes na�ƒ¯ve—protagonist against unseen shadow forces that go to the height of power, said power enabling them to partake in their dark deeds). However, while the Riding trilogy hews relatively closely to realism, derives its narrative merit from psychological and character-based drama, and has a decidedly darker view of where its characters will wind up, The Girl Who Played With Fire combines its perspective with an aesthetic and outlook that feels more Hollywood action-movie than anything else. In one fight scene that feels like it’s straight out of James Bond, a boxer goes up against a hulking mass who sustains many blows to the face without the slightest reaction. Later, we learn that the brute has congenital analgesia â�‚��€œ a disease that makes one insensitive to pain. How convenient.

The Girl Who Played With Fire wants to have it both ways, too. This time the primary contradiction is not in regard to Salander as a sex object (although, be sure, a lesbian sex scene early on toes the line between intimate portrayal of the character’s personal life and blatant objectification); rather, the contradiction is a tonal one. The film at times wishes to be a serious thriller about journalistic and political intrigue—a level-headed look at power and the exploitation thereof, with well-developed characters guiding us. As a result, when the big action set pieces come in, the viewer instinctively feels the pang of being seriously manipulated; the characters in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and the social wrongs they attempt to right, are far too real and palpable to be subjected to the absurdist treatment of Hollywood action. As the characters find themselves in increasingly desperate situations, the manipulation becomes clear—how could such fleshed out characters be subjected to such impossible circumstances? You feel for them at the same time that you cry foul. And as the plot becomes more and more about whether or not our protagonists will survive, and less and less about the levers of power that enable sex trafficking to occur, one begins to feel that this real-life tragic problem has been exploited for the sake of simple plot mechanics. It all is, simply put, not fair play.

06/30/10 1:00pm



Great Directors

Directed by Angela Ismailos

When this critic first heard about Great Directors, a documentary consisting of interviews with nine prominent filmmakers, a sudden fear gripped him. The fear was that despite the potential inherent in interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Ken Loach, David Lynch, John Sayles and Agnes Varda, the film would be nothing more than a cobbled-together piece of flattery as unconnected and arbitrary as the collection of filmmakers themselves. Upon viewing the film, this critic learned that he was unfortunately correct. Rather than delving deep into the minds and creative processes of these (markedly different) filmmakers, we merely watch them skimming the surfaces of their creative histories for 90 minutes.

One wonders if the pre-production process for Great Directors was as simple as this: contact as many notable living filmmakers as possible. Ask them if they will be subjects in a documentary. Interview whoever says yes. One hopes this project was not merely an excuse for helmer Angela Ismailos to mingle with (and perhaps, to some minor degree, assert herself as in the same intellectual league as?) her industry betters, but judging by the completely unnecessary reaction shots of Ismailos during the interviews (very 20/20) and just plain baffling 16mm silent footage of Ismailos wandering aimlessly and ominously around various European cities, one has to wonder.

What emerges from Ismailos’ experiment is something of a reflection of the viewer’s cinematic tastes; if there’s filmmakers listed above whose work you enjoy, you may enjoy watching them talk about their work here for a bit. Some give away more than others. David Lynch talks about the career maneuvering that got him his Elephant Man directing gig, and the importance of final cut. John Sayles gives insight, some of it quite amusing, into the world of script doctoring (“I can guarantee you, the first draft of The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character had slaves. By the time the movie comes out, you’ve got these kind of random black people who are#&8212;what? Working on his property as some kind of happy volunteers, right?”) Some offer rather enigmatic aphorisms combined with superficial career reflections (Breillat for both; Frears for just the latter). Ken Loach seems awfully polite, and informs us both that he owns a bus pass and that the ornate garden setting for his interview is not his home, but a film set (he doesn’t say anything too interesting about his filmmaking process). Agnes Varda talks a bit about her kids, and how she’s happy to still be working. It’s a bit like trying to start conversations with strangers in a coffee shop#&8212;hit or miss.

Of course, it didn’t have to be. Any cinephile will feel a pang of jealousy at the access Ismailos gained, as well as a sense of missed opportunity at the dullness of her questions (how did your career get started, do you worry about failure, etc.). According to the film’s press notes, Ismailos is “a lifelong cinephile,” albeit one who “studied law and earner her master’s degree in political science.” She also studied film at NYU and the New York Film Academy. It was upon reading this that Great Directors began to reek of being an independently wealthy film buff’s vanity project; upon reading that Ismailos “resides in both New York and Paris,” said reek became a full-blown stench. So it comes as no surprise that the questions aren’t particularly penetrating, that the conversations feel terribly informal and trivial. Bertolucci talks about having large Sunday lunches with his extended family growing up, and his father introducing him to Pasolini. This is Filmmaker Interviews Lite. Ismailos says in the press notes that “I sat up reading Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto” in preparation for her interview with Bertolucci; whether the joke here is on Bernardo or Karl is unknown.

The one real gem here is Todd Haynes. Haynes, who majored in Semiotics at Brown, is one of the most powerfully intellectual filmmakers working today. At his best, his critical-theory background has provided him with a template for critiquing the most ubiquitous elements of our lives, the ones so omnipresent we are often unaware of them#&8212;as in Safe. In that film, Haynes’ intellectual read of an American upper class that is being suffocated by its own shallowness and lack of meaning was turned into a bizarre, formalist horror film where the eerie control of his mise en scene and photography perfectly dramatized such a shallowness. At other times#&8212;as in I’m Not There#&8212;his intellectual game-playing has been so wound up (in that film, due to having six different actors playing six radically different, thinly veiled versions of Bob Dylan) that it has been difficult to find genuine emotion and character underneath the intellectual showmanship (which, admittedly, was perhaps the point of I’m Not There). Regardless, there’s no doubting that he’d be awfully fun to have a conversation with, as evidenced by how he steals the show here. He speaks early on about his circa-1990 premonitions of how New Queer Cinema would become adopted into the symbolic order: “I had a feeling that we were going to create some kind of an idea of queerness, and that would solidify and be viewed back on, later on, as some kind of encapsulating idea of what queerness is.” He later unpacks Fassbinder so deftly that his take probably deserves an essay all its own, touching upon how Fassbinder seemed to eschew much of the exciting things going on at the time in contemporary European cinema, and arguing that Fassbinder was more influenced by Douglas Sirk than anyone else (Haynes himself did his own Sirk riff, Far From Heaven). His interview confirmed this critic’s suspicions#&8212;that his intellect is both his greatest asset and, at times, greatest hindrance as a filmmaker.


Opens July 2

06/21/10 11:59am

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“An image is born from drawing together two distant realities,” Jean-Luc Godard lectures in JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, which plays tonight at BAM. “The more the ties between these two realities are distant and right, the stronger the image will be.” As we hear his narration, we view an image of Godard alone in a dark room, staring at two duplicate images—one on a video display right in front of him, the second projected onto a screen behind it. The images are various clips from TV shows and movies. “An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, he continues, “but because the association of its ideas is distant.” A pause. “Distant, and right.” Cut to a panorama: a snow-covered, tree-lined field in Godard’s hometown of Rolle, Switzerland. Beautiful, despairing. Equally beautiful, equally despairing classical music plays, as it does during most of JLG/JLG, the film that, thematically speaking, belongs as the closing work in his oeuvre.

Not an autobiography but a cinematic “self-portrait,” JLG/JLG (also known in French as JLG Par JLG—”JLG by JLG”) is one of Godard’s most emotionally affecting and personal works. Filmed largely in Godard’s own home, with vast Swiss landscapes interspersed throughout, the essay-film follows Godard as he watches videos, reads, tries to do some writing, receives some sort of bureaucratic film-ministry officials, lectures his housekeeper, and plays tennis. (As the ball sails by the sixty-four-year-old, he quips, “I am happy to be passed.” Then, as we cut to a landscape shot, comes the requisite kicker—a quote supplied by Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It hasn’t even passed.”) The film is primarily a vehicle for Godard’s personal observations and musings, reflections on a life lived as “the exception to the rule,” a phrasing he is fond of here. (“Culture is the rule—art is the exception.”) It’s an hour spent visiting with the master, alone.

Godard’s loneliness comes across in pronounced fashion. JLG/JLG could be quite similar to Godard’s other home-movie masterpiece, Soft and Hard, were it not for the fact that his longtime partner Anne Marie-Mieville, a force of nature in that film, is absent here. In order for Godard to accurately convey what it feels like to be him, one imagines, some home-life liberties must be taken. So it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch when, after declaring that an image is two realities, distant yet tied together, we cut from Godard by himself to a deserted snowy field. Is this what has happened to cinema’s enfant terrible, the man who had the greatest run (1959-1967), arguably, of not only any filmmaker but any artist in the 20th century? Well, yeah. Godard in the 60s and Godard in 1995 are two realities that couldn’t be any more distant from one another, and yet they are powerfully tied together, almost logically so; hence, the strength of the image.

But JLG/JLG is not just a cine-essay about the old master’s perceived isolation (which, some might argue, is in no small part self-inflicted—”Greek problems?”). In many ways JLG/JLG is a distillation of the theorizing elements of his 60s work—the quips, the references, the gorgeous cinematic moments where everything seems to blend together, as in this film’s sublime denouement. When unnamed workers from (presumably) some bureaucratic agency look through Godard’s films, and discuss how many “shelves” different countries will get for their films, (France doesn’t fare too well, naturally) Godard quips, “Europe has memories. America has t-shirts.” In the 60s, such bits of philosophizing and audience-testing were weaved into larger tapestries of pseudo-narratives and semi-developed characters who became iconic archetypes due to their lack of depth. But now Godard has stripped everything away, leaving us with nothing but the stray thoughts, the ideas and references, the little crumbs and traces that pepper his culture-mulcher mind, a brain trying to consume everything. (It’s a well-known piece of folklore that in his youth, apparently, Godard would run through 40 or 50 books in a few hours, reading only the first and last pages of each.) Is the tossing around of one-liners and stray thoughts, perhaps, how his filmmaking process begins?

One of the most poignant moments in the film comes as Godard tries to write, and revise, some text that (presumably) he will use for the very film we’re watching. “No one speaks the exception,” he says as he writes. “Everyone speaks the rule. No one speaks the exception. Culture is the rule. Art is the exception.” He then proceeds to name some artists who have expressed the “exception”—a list of Godard’s favorites. Antonioni and Vigo get the nod for cinema. He notes that above all the arts is the art of living. “It is the European rule of culture to organize the death of the art of living.” He pulls out a gorgeous piece of poetry—Louis Aragon’s Le Creve-Coeur, a book of poetry about living in Nazi-occupied France — and reads: “When it is time to close the book / I will have no regrets. / I’ve seen so many live so poorly, / and seen so many die so well.” (In French, it rhymes beautifully, and just about breaks your heart.)

One of the many questions permeating the air throughout the film is, how has Godard done? Has he lived and/or died well? The thrust of the film—no accident that it is a self-portrait in December—seems to indicate that Godard believes he has “died,” cinematically speaking, but is nevertheless doing his best to make it a good death. JLG/JLG is the kind of film that will only serve to further polarize the mass of cinephiles who distinctly lean one way or another on Godard, especially his all-too-often unfortunately, maddeningly misunderstood later work. As it is the cinematic distillation, the essence, of Godard’s own personality, his intimate views and puns and whims being shared with us, this is as it should be. And yet, this emphasis on self is ultimately tempered by modesty of a sort, as Godard relays in the film’s close: “A man, nothing but a man, no better than any other, but no other any better than he.”