"No...You don't know what you're doing, you haven't done any research. You make it good for the rest of us by taking the crap off the market. Plus you're poor. [I told you he'd stop at nothing. It's this kind of thing that may well be Lou Reed's last tenuous hold on herodom. And I don't mean heroism.] And even if you weren't poor you wouldn't know what you were buying anyway. You wouldn't know how to weigh it, you don't know your metabolism, you don't know your sleeping quotient, you don't know when to eat and not to eat, you don't know about electricity..."
"The main thing is money, power and ego," I said, quoting an old Ralph J. Gleason column for some reason. I was getting a little dazed.
"No, it has to do with electricity and the cell structure..."
—Lester Bangs, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves," Creem, March 1975
On the most simplistic level, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is like Randy Newman's great, disturbing song "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" writ large. The movie's main character, a selectively precocious teen named Lisa who lives at a certain level of New York City privilege that nonetheless seems perpetually poised on the brink of toppling, doggedly pursues an idea of justice that's pretty transparently a hardly un-malicious attempt at expiating, or maybe virally spreading, her own guilt. Her selfish pursuit of a trifle, it seems to her, precipitated a grisly, fatal bus accident in her Upper West Side neighborhood. Having lied in her initial statement to cops, her nagging conscience, not to mention her roiling, emerging sense of self, compels her to try to put things right, as she sees it, and Lisa pursues this aim with what might be called a vengeance, throwing several lives besides her own into more than everyday tumult.
One might call this a loose, baggy monster of a film; the cut currently showing in theaters is a hair under two-and-a-half hours long, so clearly the simplistic reading just won't do. And in fact Margaret is "about" a number of other things, including that peculiar formulation called "post-9/11 New York," the porous border between emotions as we feel them and emotions as we portray them (much is made of the fact that Lisa's beleaguered single mom is a reasonably succesful actress with both a new play and a new beau on her plate), the way daily lives can still proceed in a "normal" fashion despite the extent of moral/behavioral complication/trauma we (perhaps) arbitrarily bring to bear on them, and more. It's about fantasy projections of heroism, what it means to be "good" rather than good. (What it's not about, I don't think, is "the trolley problem," which some beardo tried to expain to some other guy with a waxed moustache as they walked out of the afternoon Manhattan screening I attended yesterday. Oy.) It is also rather relentlessly high-minded; as Lisa goes to a pretty advanced private school and her mom works in "the arts," writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes the opportunities this affords him to weave multiple, meaningful cultural allusions into the narrative; a pertinent Gloucester-observation from King Lear is discussed at length, and the film's title doesn't refer to an actual character in the film but to the person addressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall," a not-too-distant relation to Donne's "Meditation 17;" and opera figures prominently in a couple of scenes, to the point that one might become confused as to whether the film is a Flaubertian treatment of Jamesean themes after having believed it was vice-versa.
Does it all work? Not entirely. There's a bit of awkwardness to the articulation of the prevailing consciousness, or self-consciousness, at times. I really didn't need the bus driver to be quite so lumpen, or quite so much from a Bay Ridge that is a much less compelling product of Lonergan's imagination than his Upper West Side is. Poor Jean Reno is almost laughably miscast.The swing-for-the-fences approach, when it becomes obvious, sometimes leads to near-disaster. Indeed, at the film's finale, Lonergan seems to be lurching toward a cornball universalist Sweeping Gesture, and he fortunately regrounds things back in the specific for the final shots. But on the whole, and given a few hours to let it sink in, I'm thoroughly impressed. As many of you migh tbe aware, Margaret has a tangled and unpleasant post-production history. It was shot over five years ago and spent a considerable amount of time in editing rooms, and in civil courts, before receiving its current limited release. Several of its lead actors, most prominently Matt Damon and the very great Anna Paquin, look almost comically younger than they do today; indeed, on the evil Twitter machine I wisecracked that Fox Searchlight might want to market the film as being about a time-travel device that puts movie stars in touch with their younger, fresher selves. (Also, hey, look, there's young[er] Olivia Thirlby!) Armed with such information, critics will of course run with it, and Margaret has taken some brickbats for its ostensible lack of focus and "punishing" running time. I dunno; even though there were times I thought it wasn't quite making it, I was sufficiently drawn into its world that in retrospect I could have more than stood it being quite a bit longer. In terms of ambition, and, yes, actual scope—the last thing this is is a 90-minute movie stretched out to some arbitrary epic—this is a huge leap for Lonergan, a playwright whose film debut was the similarly thoughtful but somewhat "smaller" 2000 You Can Count On Me. It's kind of comparable to the jump writer/director Jeff Nichols made from Shotgun Stories to Take Shelter, I suppose, but what came to my mind was the notion that Eric Rohmer had followed My Night At Maud's with something of mid-period Rivette duration, or maybe his own gloss on something along the lines of Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. That sounds a little out there, I know, but it might make sense to you if you see the film, which, as Joe Pesci said in Raging Bull, you definitely should do. And yes, I very much hope that Lonergan gets to make more films. Long ones, too.
So Slate has started a "culture blog," called "Browbeat," get it?, and it seems pretty much as delightful as you'd expect. And yesterday over at said blog David Haglund put up a brief post with the headline "Must Film Buffs Watch the Revolting Salò?" which is really a pretty interesting hed by my lights, because every word in it except maybe 'film" and "the" represents a category error. This whole notion of film "buff"-dom, and/or cinephilia, as a kind of contest; I never got it. No one individual knows the entirety of film history; no one has seen everything; no one can speak with authority on every film, every filmmaker. Enthusiasts are enthusiasts, and yes, "professional" critics ought to have seen more, and processed more, than laymen or enthusiasts or what have you. The notion that you're going to get thrown out of some club if you don't "subject" yourself to film X seems entirely ridiculous. And while I'd be the first to argue, very strongly, that a wide viewing background and some substantial historical context is essential not just to persuasive and engaging critical writing but also to critical thinking itself, even the most learned and erudite will find themselves in a position when they're obliged to bluff, punt, or just pass on the subject.
This might seem an especially inapt way to put it, but I personally don't give a shit whether you've seen Salò or not. I've seen it, I may watch it again now that it's out on Blu-ray (once my PS3 is replaced), but your having seen it is not the linchpin on which I'm going to base my assessment of either your cinephilia or your critical intelligence. I bring it up because I find (and you may be surprised to discover this) the whole perspective of the discussion to be kind of dispiriting; this whole sense of Salò as a kind of totem of all that is reprehensible in cinematic imagery and hence reducible to a parlor game acid test, the art-film equivalent of The Human Centipede, for the adults in the room. Except discussing it on that particular level simply is not adult (I know, I know, I'm turning into Lee Siegel, right?) and while Haglund quoted mostly smart people in his piece, only Scott Tobias of The A/V Club is quoted in such a way as to even suggest that Salò has any kind of cultural specificity outside of its status as some kind of coffee-table gross-out object. (I know that Richard Brody certainly apprehends the film in a culturally specific way, too, but the quotes from him in Haglund's piece are on the more general side.) For many reasons it's a shame that Salò, a deliberately unreasonable cinematic disgorgement of despair, was Pier Paolo Pasolini's final film; it gives it the aura of a testament that it was likely not intended to be. I wrote about the film myself for what was then known as The Auteurs' Notebook, and concluded, "as an examination of any facet of fascism in particular, or power relations in general, Salò is a welter of incoherence." I said "welter," and I meant "welter," and if I watch Salò again, it will be to reexamine my own assessment of it, not for the sake of testing my tolerance for unpleasant imagery. Again: Cinephilia is not a game of "Guts," for fuck's sake. Criticism even less so.
And yes, it is snicker-worthy that in the "Browbeat" post, Dan Kois, who essentially made his name by saying, "Nyah, nyah, Solaris is a bore that only stupid collegiate posers fall for" chimes in that "yes, a serious cinephile ought to see [Salò]." It's almost as if the guy is pulling a gigantic practical joke or something.
Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running, Vincente Minnelli, 1958
"This movie must have a lot of meaning for you, given that you named your blog after it," my friend Tony Dayoub remarked as we entered the BAM complex for a screening of this, a part of the place's exemplary Complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective now in progress. "I guess," I shrugged. "But you know, it was also one of those things; I'd gotten bounced from my job that day, I got drunk, came home, started a blog..."
And to tell you the truth, I don't think I'd seen the picture in its entirety in some time at the point I started the blog. Nor had I seen the picture in its entirety, up until yesterday, since. Nor have I ever finished reading the enormous James Jones novel on which the film is based, which was generously gifted to me by my friend Tom Carson a few years back. And frankly when I named the blog I was thinking maybe as much of Michel Piccoli's character's intended homage to Dean Martin's Bama, in Godard's Contempt.
But it's a great picture, as I was happy to rediscover at the screening yesterday. It's a very peculiar picture in some ways. The screenplay by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman seems an exemplarily schematic blueprint for a '50s epic contempo melodrama-entertainment event picture; a funny/ironic bit here, a heart-tugging sincere bit there, an explicit foreshadowing of what we expect is going to be a problem here, the "shocking" and galvanic articulation of the problem there. (Although some of the problems are not all that thoroughly articulated; we never really learn just what the deal is with Martha Hyer's character, do we?) The extent to which it's a very conventional '50s treatment of Big Authentic Feelings at odds with Narrow Smalltown Minds is pretty conventional, except for the meticulousness of Minnelli's direction, which you can see how it might have driven Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin nuts; there are a bunch of shots here in which you can see that the actor has to step on to one particular mark at precisely this time, or else the lighting effect that's gonna throw the shot/scene into a completely different kind of relief just isn't gonna come off. But it is most often in the not-necessarily expected and less directly overt exercises of that meticulousness when the film makes very moving contact with The Real, as in the above shot, wherein Shirley MacLaine's Ginnie Moorehead (yeesh, that name), making an awkward and eager confession to Martha Hyer's entirely more prim Gwen French, hangs her head in embarrassment/shame/self-abasement, and Minnelli and lenser William H. Daniels and editor Adrienne Fazan just hold the shot on MacLaine and allow you to get a really, really good look at her roots, which tell a story of their own. So yeah, I'm quite happy to have named the blog after this film.
My reactions to this film are unavoidably colored by the fact that it's based on a short story by Tom Bissell, who aside from being in my estimation an unimpeachable great writer is also a very dear friend of long standing. (Back in 2002, Tom and another pal who shall remain nameless were kind enough to stage The World's Smallest Intervention on my behalf, which didn't take at the time but for which I've become grateful.) So I just walk in to the screening feeling chuffed that a talented and distinctive screenwriter/director, Julia Loktev, decided to adapt Tom's story, "Expensive Trips Nowhere" (featured in his wonderful collection God Lives In St. Petersburg) in he first place.
The tale is not a complicated one; it's an account of a young Western couple's hiking trek across a part of Kazakhstan, and an incident that sheds a glaring light on their characters and their relationship. And then there's their relationship to the guide. Lotkev takes Tom's story and makes it her own; she mostly jettisons the elements of social critique (Tom lays out a lot of the couple's First-World-Problems meticulously throughout; in his story, they're also married, while in the film, they're engaged to be) and, most crucially, renders indeterminate the result of the event that in the story pretty much sunders...well, I don't want to give away too much.
My friend The Self Styled Siren isn't the first person to weigh in on the film with some frustration over the fact that the film's couple, played by the very appealing Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg (seen above with Bidzina Gujabidze, who plays their guide), never verbally address the elephant in the room after it shows up. "The movie explodes if one character turns to the other on one of the many arduous hikes and says 'What the hell...?'" If I may be allowed to play devil's advocate and represent what Hitchcock might be gratified to note as an anti-Plausible position, the fact that neither of the characters does utter any such thing might just be precisely the point. I'm only saying. In any case, what works like crazy here is both Loktev's pictorial sense and ability to ratchet up tension in distinctly unshowy ways; while dunderheads and the eyeless might be under the impression that nothing is happening when she cuts away to a ravishing long shot of the scenery and lets Richard Skelton's gorgeous, otherworldy ethnological not-quite-forgery music have its way with the movie, the rest of us will get the feeling, for sure. (And how's that for a Kael-like lunge at SPEAKING FOR THE "RIGHT" PEOPLE, huh? Um, maybe not.) Its narrative open-endedness seeks, I think, to engage the intuition of the viewer, which is something that I'm noticing certain viewers are coming to resent. But that's another issue for another piece.
2) You Are Not I
Sarah Driver's long-kind-of-lost 45-minute 1981 adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story, shot in Vampyr-inflected black-and-white by Driver's frequent collaborator Jim Jarmusch, and featuring a deliberately bugging-the-hell-out-of-the-back-of-your-brain-like-an-alarm-clock-you-can't-shut-off electronic score by Phil Kline, often plays like the New York Underground answer to Carnival of Souls, which I mean entirely as a compliment.
3) Le Havre
2006's Lights in the Dusk was a real rut in Aki Kaurismaki's path to sweet-and-quirkily-warmhearted-old-fogeydom, but this very satisfying quasi-caper is an exhilarating rebound that places him squarely and touchingly in that territory. The story of a fairytale community in the title burg that rallies round to help a delightfully taciturn and well-mannered young undocumented African immigrant reach his destination across the channel, its sure pace and consistent comic understatement nicely set up some of the director's most casually daring absurdist tropes in years. Filtering a genuine contemporary European social concern through his wry and slightly addled (by what I have no idea, I'm sure) sensibility seems to have charged Aki's batteries up a bit. Nice going.
4) We Can’t Go Home Again
What's that guy in back of Woody Allen say about the new Fellini, that it's "very indulgent?" Yeah, that's what he says. One would not, honestly, need to be forgiven if those very words, and with the exact same inflection yet, flashed through one's own mind at various points at this film signed by "Us," supervised by Nicholas Ray when he was a filmmaking instructor at SUNY Binghamton in the early 1970s. I mean, how IS one to characterize a film in which the one-time Hollywood director is depicted ineptly attempting suicide? (Although admittedly the attempt does produce one of the film's biggest laughs, when the magesterial white-haired wreck Ray, fumbling with some rope, grumbles "I've made thirteen Westerns and I still have no idea how to tie a noose.") But again, I think the indulgence is the point. A multi-frame expectoration of footage of himself and his students interrogating themselves and him and each other mixed with ruminations on the political upheavals of the prior years mixed with reflections on the increasingly bitter reality that home/America/a sense of belonging/what have you is dissolving into the corrosive acid of ever-mounting cultural and sexual and political fragmentation, Home is both an effort to find coherence/community and an avowal of the possible impossibility of doing so. So of course it's going to be indulgent. It is also frequently kind of tedious, and frequently kind of dazzling, and frequently kind of infuriatingly self-pitying. It's quite a few provocative things, but many of its qualities won't be immediately discernable to anybody who's not already a Ray-head, so consider this a warning.
One of those pictures that one could look at and say, "Well, sure, of course, with the time, the place, and the people, anybody could go in and make a good film." Of course, if you've seen enough docs that had the time, the place, and the people, and the filmmakers STILL managed to fuck things up, you know that's a glib assessment. So all praise to director Stefano Savona, who's assembled an incredibly engaging and provocative moving snapshot of a Cairo's square's chanting, rock-throwing, cell-phone-and-computer-checking, social-media-enabled contribution to Arab spring, featuring conversations between young firebrands and monologues from old blowhards who are still hugely touching for all their blow-hardedness. Not a comprehensive survey of political perspectives and tensions nor a prospectus on what's ahead for Egypt or what the West is in store for, but rather the vital story of some people gathered together, and their crucial passions, and how they united under those passions.
6) The Turin Horse
I've always looked at the anecdote about Nietsche and that poor horse as an exemplary paradoxical parable about how once/if you reach total consciousness/compassion over all the overwhelming pointless suffering in this world, the only possible reaction is not that you become a better/nicer person, but that you fall into the grip of an absolutely paralyzing madness (which can sometimes be helped even further along by dementia courtesy of [maybe] tertiary syphilis). And those are the breaks. Aiiee. In any event, my biggest problem with Bela Tarr's apparent cinematic swan song is that its perspective doesn't quite jibe with my own above interpretation of the whole equine kerfuffle. Still and all, I found this cinematically virtuosic, narratively minimal, and genuinely, albeit peculiarly, gripping almost-two-and-a-half-hour black-and-white account of the end of the world as disaffected father and daughter and horse know it, absolutely superb. Even though it didn't galvanize me as much as some prior Tarr films, even including the rather more overtly problematic The Man From London, have. I think maybe it wasn't meant to; there's a peculiar serenity at the center of all its considerable dread. I should like to see it again soon.
See a bit below. I think it's worth reiterating that this is a satiric farce, and deserves to be considered as such. I think it's also worth reiterating that People Are Fucking Stupid. I read somewhere (I can't find it now...does the fact that I can't link mean that I'm Doing That Thing Again) someone complaining that the piece makes no sense because the one couple could just LEAVE and they don't and it's always the lamest pretext compelling them to re-enter the apartment. Yeah, The Return Of The Plausibles. Someday I'd like to see somebody make a film in which all of the action unfolds in the most absolutely plausible and true-to-life fashion possible. Oh, yeah, they already made that film and it's fucking called Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, and I bet The Plausibles won't like that picture much either, albeit maybe for different reasons. What is worth noting, although not having seen the play I can only speculate rather than accurately cite stuff, is that Polanksi seems to have some fun coming up with little bits of business to nudge that characters back into the apartment where the main action (such as it is) is largely set, including a sly couple of shots involving a fellow tenant, or Tenant, that will evoke a chuckle in some and perhaps outrage in others.
8) A Separation
A very nifty piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand from writer-director Asghar Fahadi, this Iranian domestic drama takes a home trauma and ratchets it up to a kind of judicial thriller. If Michael Haneke were filming this scenario, he'd hold his shots in such a way as to goad the viewer into looking deeper into them. (See certain of the views in Caché.) If the director were Hitchcock, he'd foreground certain objects in such a way as to set off the audience's intrigue about them. (See the telephone in Dial "M" For Murder.) Fahadi's seemingly naturalistic shooting and editing style is deceptively simple; he gives, or seems to give, no particular weight to any given object or action, and all the while he's stowing away things that will be vitally important later on. If the film's second half is a very tense round of "Find What The Sailor Has Hidden," the first half shows the, um, sailor hiding everything in plain sight. Mongo impressed. Fuckin' A, you definitely need to see this.
9) Living in the Material World
As it was for my friend Tony Dayoub, this picture was an easy sell for me, whose first LP was Beatles '65, gifted to me at Christmas 1964 when I was all of five years old. A satisfyingly lengthy musical and social and cultural history as well as a biography, it's suitably empathetic—if anyone can reveal George Harrison's Jake LaMotta side, it's the film's organizational intelligence/spirit Martin Scorsese—and a little more plastically and conceptually clever/resourceful than its goes-down-easy narrative initially indicates. Not strictly linear by any means, it gets to the many places it wants to go via dovetails that are simultaneously thematic and chronological, and it accomplishes an awful lot via implication/example, c.f. the frankly horrific live concert footage the film cuts to right after Klaus Voorman brings up the subject of cocaine for the first time. The picture is sometimes unusually candid and finally very moving, and the sound mix is spectacular. As a bonus, Jackie Stewart as you've never seen him before. No, really.
Hollywood follows the mass audience and the mass audience follows Hollywood; there is no leader. The worst of the past is preserved with new dust. How many films that we once groaned at do we now hear referred to nostalgically? When the bad is followed by the worse, even the bad seems good. (Film addicts talk about Grand Hotel or Busby Berkeley's choreography, as if those were the days.) The hostility toward art and highbrowism that infect much of our culture helps to explain the popularity of so many untrained and untalented screen performers. Richard Burton and Dan O'Herlihy do not stimulate the fans; Tony Curtis, Tab Hunter, Janet Leigh, Jane Powell do. Fans like untrained actors; perhaps they like even the embarrassment of untrained actors (why should they tolerate the implied criticism of speech or gesture that derives from a higher culture?). The office girl says, "No, I don't want to go see Howard Keel—he was a professional singer, you know." The taste of the mass audience belongs to sociology, not aesthetics. Those who make big films do not consider primarily the nature of the medium and what they want to do with it, they try to keep ahead of the mass audience.
As the mass media developed, the fine points of democratic theory were discarded, and a parody of democracy became public dogma. The film critic no longer considers that his function is the formation and reformation of public taste (that would be an undemocratic presumption); the old independent critic who would trumpet the good, blast the bad, and tell his readers they were boobs if they wasted money on garbage, gives way to the amiable fellow who feels responsible not to his subject matter but to the tastes of the stratum of his public. Newspaper critics are, in many cases, not free to attack big films (too much is at stake), but they are usually free to praise what they wish; yet they seem too unsure of themselves, too fearful of causing a breach with their readers, to praise what may be unpopular. It is astonishing how often they attack the finest European productions and the most imaginative American ones—safe targets. Attitudes become more important than judgments. The critic need not make any definite adverse comments; his descriptive tone is enough to warn his readers off. Praise which includes such terms as "subtle," "low-keyed" or "somber" is damnation; the critic saves his face but helps kill the movie.
There are people, lots of them, who take big pictures seriously. What is one to say to the neo-Aristotelianism of the salesgirl who reports "I saw The Student Prince last night—it was so wonderful and so sad. I cried and cried, and when it was over, why, I just felt all cleaned out." Only snobs howl at Duel in the Sun ($11.3 million gross), and if you crawled out on Quo Vadis ($10.5 million gross) you not only showed your disrespect for heavy labor, you implied contempt for those who were awed by it. Hollywood productions are official parts of American life, proofs of technological progress; derision is subversive. You will be reproved with "What right have you to say Samson and Delilah is no good when millions of people like it?" and you will be subjected to the final devastation of "It's all a matter of taste and one person's taste is as good as another's." One does not make friends by replying that although it is all a matter of taste (and education and intelligence and sensibility) one person's taste is not as good as another's.
—Pauline Kael, "Movies, the Desperate Art," The Berkley Book of Modern Writing No. 3, 1956, revised for Film: An Anthology, 1959, reprinted in The Age of Movies, Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz, The Library of America, 2011