"Charlie Countryman," starring Shia LaBeouf, for whom I have no sympathy, and Evan Rachel Wood, for whom I have some sympathy, is a capital-B Bad Movie which I review for RogerEbert.com on this day, Friday, November 15, 2013.
As for the work, I'll keep you posted on those things that are actually relevant to My Higher Calling As A Film Critic, and maybe a couple of things that aren't. And I'll soon weigh in here on a Particular Aspect At Least, of...wait for it...The Counselor.
Chewitel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave. The dialogue they exchange in the scene pictured is taken very nearly verbatim from the source material.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, which played at the New York Film Festival last week and comes to theaters on the 17th of October, is as extraordinary a film as most of its reviews claim it is. The acting and the direction are indeed remarkable, but I was also struck by John Ridley's script, the dialogue in which very convincingly simulates mid-19th-century modes of North American speech while augmenting the already-powerful narrative with extremely trenchant philosophical and psychological observations, pronouncements, and maxims. The implications of these words, particularly within their contexts, are extraordinary, and it's to the credit of Ridley (an extremely able writer whose prior work as I've experienced it has been notably smart but never acheived precisely this level of depth), McQueen and the extraordinary cast that the nuggets of disquieting added value never play as contrived or forced. I record nine of them below, with descriptions that I hope are sufficiently discreet so as not to constitute "spoilers;" nevertheless, some readers may prefer to look at this piece after they have seen the movie themselves.
It's worth noting that there is not a whole lot of recorded dialogue in the first four-fifths or so of the Solomon Northup memoir on which the movie is based. What dialogue is taken from the book is, as it happens, lifted almost verbatim. Of the nine bits of dialogue examined below, two derive directly from the book, and it's a testament to Ridley's sensitivity and inventiveness that he makes his dialogue not just out of such speech that's recorded in the book, but out of certain particular emotional articulations put down by the memoirist.
1) "The reality to come is that we will be transported Southward."
Shortly after free man of color Northup is hoodwinked into entering a slave state and subsequently drugged and kidnapped, he waits anxiously in a cell with a two other black men who have arrived at a similar circumstance. They both speak to him with an articulate resignation, because they know what's going on, to the extent that as soon as their brutal white handlers enter the room they put on the masks of shambling half-idiots. Northup expresses absolute incredulity at his plight and wonders aloud as to how he might be able to correct what he believes to have been a mistake. The line above, in which the phrase "the reality to come" has a particular resonance in its resignation, is spoken to Northup in a devastating fatalistic tone by the actor Chris Chalk, in the role of Clemens.
2) "You luxuriate in his favor. I survive."
Also in Northup's party traveling from Virginia to Louisiana to be sold is Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a woman who is subsequently mercilessly separated from her two children and sold with Northup to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), an ostensibly "humane" master who nevertheless employs a brutal overseer played by Paul Dano. After the educated and worldly Northup, while continuing to conceal his identity (on arriving in Louisiana he is commanded to take the name "Platt"), impresses Ford with his engineering acumen, he is treated in a fashion that makes his station somewhat more tolerable, while Eliza, heartbroken over the loss of her children, literally cannot stop crying. She directs the above accusation to Northup after he (very gently) upbraids her about her behavior, which he fears will bring her into disfavor, single her out for punishment.
Not to trivialize the situation of the people depicted in the motion picture, but luxuriating in the favor of an individual or corporate entity very much remains a condition pertaining to employment to this day.
3) "Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. But I fear no good will come of it."
Because of some confusion in my notes, I initially wrote, "This is spoken to Northup/Platt by Epps (Michael Fassbender), the 'nigger breaker' to whom Ford sells Platt. Epps' 'fear,' obviously, is for Platt rather than for himself. Or is it? As cut and dried as the master/slave relationship might seem, this line implies hierarchies within it that subsequent events lay out most discomfitingly." As it happens, the line is actually spoken by Cumberbatch's seemingly kindly Ford, and is a reflection of the fact that his very exceptionalism has put him in a position where Dano's raging overseer has very nearly lynched him. The point of Cumberbatch's character, and something the actor plays with considerable resourcefulness, is that he is in no way redeemed by being a nice slave owner: he directly benefits from human misery, directly partakes in a system that allows him to do so. That he goes about this business with more gentleness and consideration than others does not change the fundamental fact of the matter. And like the song says, "isn't he a bit like you and me?" Or more than a bit, even. The movie is not blunt in showing the viewer his or her complicity in injustice, but it's very definite in doing so. It seems that many people deal with this by changing the subject to how well the movie ought to do in the Oscar race, which is pretty funny. Maybe.
4) "Nigger among niggers. God gave her to me."
This is Epps again, speaking of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the small, delicate but very hard-working (she consistently outpicks her fellows in the cotton field, and by huge margins) slave girl for whom Epps nurses a very deep erotic obsession, and obsession not unnoticed by Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson). His pride, his sense of possession, his torture over his attraction to her: Fassbender of course plays all this with absolute commitment. The character, also a very nasty drunk, is powerful, and powerfully repellent. In an interview with Film Comment, director McQueen observes "The funny thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Epps because he's in love with Patsey." That's true, but it's also true that there is no possibility of any kind of fair exchange of emotion or understanding between them because of the absolute power Epps has over Patsey. One thing that's gone largely unremarked upon in the praise of this film is how mercilessly it lays bare the debased, depraved psychosexual pathology of slavery in the United States. Through patient demonstration, it argues quite coherently that the thing that destroyed black culture was white people. More than once watching 12 Years A Slave I recalled Susan Sontag's notorious 1967 pronouncement "the white race is the cancer of human history," a statement subsequently renounced by the writer. It is arguably a hyperbolic and rhetorically irresponsible statement. And yet I think it bears some examination with respect to this particular narrative. In any event, this may sound flip, but I defy anyone who sits through this movie to ever be able to comfortably listen to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" again any time soon.
5) "The curse of the Pharoah is but a poor sample of what awaits the plantation class."
Alfre Woodard, playing a once-slave whose own amorous relations with a master have elevated her to a house mistress, makes this prediction in casual conversation with Northup/Platt. For what awaits the plantation class, see, of all things, Gone With The Wind, specifically the sequence depicting the burning of Atlanta. To see the lesson the great great grandchildren of the plantation class have learned from it, see...well, never mind.
6) "Did you beguile him, Platt? With your slick nigger ways?"
Once, many years ago at the Village Voice, the columnist Nat Hentoff, commenting on something he perceived as specious in a piece by Clayton Riley, characterized Riley, and/or his use of rhetoric, by evoking a "three-card monte dealer." This resulted, as I recall, in Hentoff sustaining a shitstorm of blowback in which he was accused of racism. This was absurd on the face of it, because, really, at the time there was no white man in the United States who had less reason to be tarred as a racist than Nat Hentoff, who, for instance, in 1960 produced Charles Mingus' "Original Faubus Fables," for Christ's sake. And also, you know, three-card monte was a real thing. (I rather wish it would come back: as a method of fleecing New York tourists, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining and even innocent than dressing in a bad Elmo costume and extorting tip money for snapshots.) Still (and—again, if I recollect correctly—Hentoff came to understand this), making the analogy in this case amounted to buying into/perpetuating a vicious racial myth, one that is articulated in the question Epps asks Northup/Platt after Platt returns from a sojourn serving a different master, one who procures for the slave a paying gig as a musician. You can hear the poison narrative of "slick nigger ways" retold by white America every day, and you don't even have to listen terribly hard.
7) "But beggin' the law's pardon—it lies."
This line is taken directly from the book, spoken by the Canadian-born carpenter Bass, played by Brad Pitt. It refers to the law that permits slavery. Some have commented that Pitt's character plays like some sort of deus ex machina. I would commend those people to the narrative from which the movie was adapted, which is eminently readable and pretty short. In any event, Bass' observation is terse and powerful.
8) "Sin? There is no sin. Man does as he pleases with his property."
There is a scene late in the picture in which Platt/Northup is compelled to perform an absolutely abhorrent act, at the insistence of Epps, upon a fellow slave. This, like almost every other event in the movie, is in Northup's narrative. In the book, Northup observes, "I could look on Epps only
with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—‘Thou
devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt
answer for this sin!’” In the movie, Northup actually says a variant of this out loud, and with great emotion, to Epps, who, like everyone else in the story, deems himself a Christian. The above is what Epps answers in the movie, and it speaks strongly for itself.
9) "It would be an unspeakable happiness to see my wife and my family again."
This is what Northup says to Bass when he finally decides to confide in the kindly and moral carpenter. This is not rendered as dialogue in the book; rather, Northup writes, “I spoke of my wife and children, mentioning their names and
ages, and dwelling upon the unspeakable happiness it would be to clasp them to
my heart once more before I died.” The notion of "unspeakable happiness" is one well worth reflecting on.
Above, Paula Patton is offered the world by Djimon Hounsou in the nearly-uniquely-atrocious Baggage Claim, which is the last motion pictured I reviewed for MSN Movies. The penultimate one is Don Jon, written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, who I suppose now can be declared a "critic's darling" because his movie is getting very positive reviews while being pretty much no damn good. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the performer and his adventurousness, but this particular effort doesn't make it. And so.
Talking, quite a few years ago, about his high regard for horror movies, Martin Scorsese allowed that he "like[d] Mario Bava's films very much: hardly any story, just atmosphere, with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors." Now it would be inaccurate to characterize Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis as having "hardly any story;" in point of fact, it's got story coming and going, and I mean that literally. But the real story is told in implications and inferences; the lead character is mostly seen dealing with the consequences of irresponsible and/or out and out bad behavior (the one instance in which he's depicted acting inexcusable is, while inexcusable, at least understandable, and it doesn't occur until near the movie's end), and what we generally refer to as "plot" doesn't "function" in this movie. A little ironically, given its title, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie in which atmosphere does almost all of the important work. And that atmosphere is chilly: bare trees, near-empty streets, cloudy breath, gray skies and grayer roadways. Everyone in the movie has a sallow complexion, except for Carey Mulligan's Jean, who's so milkily luminescent that she could in fact be a ghost.
The Coen's vision of the burgeoning folk scene in Manhattan of 1961 hasn't got a single hint of A Mighty Wind and not all that much of the redolence of the Coen's own O Brother Where Art Thou. Even when the title protagonist is depicted being roped into joining a trio cutting a folk-novelty stinker under the aegis of a Columbia record exec (Ian Jarvis) who's pretty plainly styled after John Hammond, the movie studiously avoids pastiche. The authenticity-in-art bugaboo was particularly pronounced, of course, during the real period depicted here, but the Coens never address it head on, and it's to the movie's credit that it contains no heated debates about "real" folk music. Instead, it depicts Llewyn, still too young to have earned the "journeyman" tag, scrupulously if not stubbornly hoeing his own roe row, which happens to be an old-school one, and learning in increments that he's never going to get anywhere by doing so.
At the press conference after the New York Film Festival screening, the directors were asked, not for the first time, why they make movies about "failures," and Joel Coen replied, not in a particularly sarcastic way, that "all the movies about successes have been done." The thing about Llewyn, who's played with spectacular understatement with Oscar Isaac, is that he's not depicted as particularly having it coming. He is hardly untalented. And he's not a pompous blowhard like the Coen's Barton Fink; when he makes a slight balk at the aforementioned novelty song (an anti-space-travel ditty called "Please Please Mr. Kennedy" that's all the more, um, humorous for protesting against rockets while Vietnam is just around the corner), he's not strictly wrong, and he does back off when he realizes that he's insulted the actual author of the tune. And, yes, he does get the wife of a friend pregnant, and yes, he's screwed up that way before. He's irresponsible, but not glibly so, and his adventures with a friend's cat that he feels obligated to look after because it slips out of a door he's held open provide a parable that's a terribly sad reflection of not just the character but of his circumstances.
This is a genuinely glum movie, for as many comic scenes as it contains (although when you get right down to it, it does not contain a huge number of them; most of the characters maintain an undertow of sardonicism via dialogue however). "As one day fades into another/as the past gets filled up with failure," goes a lyric by David Thomas' Pere Ubu; Llewyn's past is filled not just with failure but with genuine tragedy. He's grieving, and not just for his non-thriving career. And with every step he takes, he fails again. During a disastrous road trip to Chicago, he's bedeviled by a malevolent jazzbo (John Goodman) who threatens him with voodoo he learned from Chano Pozo (nice reference) after Llewyn has the temerity to bite back at the man mountain's litany of insults. Goodman's character is grotesquely revealed to have feet of clay, but this provides Llewyn with little satisfaction; and after he separates himself from the man, and his Beat-Generation-boy-toy "valet" (Garrett Hedlund), he promptly soaks his left foot in a snowy puddle. Sipping coffee at a diner counter, he keeps taking his foot out of his soaked shoe and pressing it against the footrest, trying to squeeze some of the cold cold water out of it. This shot struck me as a central image, a numinous one even, central to the movie's wintry poetry. Granted, given recent events in my own life, it's entirely possible that I'm unusually receptive to a movie in which the central character sits in a public toilet stall and is a little unpleasantly stunned to see this graffiti text carved into the paint on the wall that holds the toilet paper: "What Are You Doing."
And for all that, and despite the ever-so-slightly on-the-nose evocation of a world historical cultural phenomenon at the movie's end, Inside Llewyn Davis is an entirely exhilarating experience. I'm quite eager to see it again.
N.b.: I offer the below in the spirit of nipping what I believe to be a particularly noxious meme in the bud. I've tried to keep it as spoiler-free as I can, and believe I've succeeded, but those invested in going into Gravity as total virgins might want to skip this post for the nonce.
Now that Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is getting rapturous reviews from the Venice Film
Festival, with more no doubt to follow, I believe it’s not un-okay for me to
let the cat out of the bag and report that I was able to see the movie a few
months back thanks to the kind consideration of some Warner people who wanted
some advance feedback from myself and a few other Internet-centric movie
journalists. I would have kept the cat in the bag longer were I not a little
disturbed by the mewlings of various and sundry folks who travel the digital
spaceways, claiming that the movie, co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón,
is somehow an ignoble enterprise in that it does not acknowledge the Ray
Bradbury short story “Kaleidoscope” as its story source.
There’s a really simple reason that Gravity doesn’t contain the credit “Based on the short story
‘Kaleidoscope’ by Ray Bradbury,” and the reason is because it isn’t. I say this
with confidence, my Everyman’s Library edition of The Stories of Ray
Bradbury open before me to page 184, on
which “Kaleidoscope” ends. As you may know, Cuarón’s film, which star George
Clooney and Sandra Bullock, is about the adventures of two astronauts who find
themselves stranded in outer space after debris from an exploding satellite
makes return to their own spacecraft impossible. “Kaleidoscope” concerns the
inner thoughts and verbal exchanges between the crew of a “rocket” (Bradbury’s
word) that’s been shattered by a
meteor storm, leaving the members of that crew drifting this way and that in
their spacesuits, facing their worst fears and worst selves as they head to the
death each of them knows is certain.
The specifics of the two stories are entirely different. In
“Kaleidoscope,” almost half a dozen rocket crew members are named, but the main
exchanges are between four: Hollis and Applegate, who had a kind of
professional rivalry, and Lespere and Stone. It takes place in an unspecified
future year, and is not merely science fiction but speculative science fiction;
in the story Lespere alludes to having wives on several planets other than
earth, which sets this story in a future when interplanatery travel is more
routine and humanoid life on other planets has been shown to exist. Gravity, on
the other hand, occurs in more or less the present time, so much so that one
critic has opined that the movie isn’t even science fiction. I’d have to say
that strictly speaking it is science fiction, not least because there are one
or two technological advantages the characters have that aren’t fully-fledged
practical realities for space workers at this point. That’s splitting hairs,
perhaps, but it is useful to note that the realm in which Bradbury was working
was necessarily much more fanciful than the one in which Gravity is set. (“Kaleidoscope” first appeared in book form
as part of Bradbury’s collection The Illustrated Man, published in 1951.)
Is the premise similar? Yes, but only insofar as Bradbury’s
own premise was similar to that of a shipwreck story. As a science-fiction
writer, a seer of rocketships and space travel and more, it was his innovation
to set a shipwreck story in a non-terrestrial realm. Gravity, too, is a shipwreck story, but the fact that it has
a smaller set of characters than “Kaleidoscope,” and the fact that one of the
characters is a woman, already kind of sets it apart automatically, and
throughout the movie’s brisk running time its emphases and circumstances differ
from those of the Bradbury story substantially, and at nearly every turn.
“Kaleidoscope” takes a premise that’s almost as old as storytelling itself and
goes its own way with it; so does Gravity. And there’s more. The most finally significant difference between the
two works is one of, well, theme. “Kaleidoscope” is about characters facing
certain death, their anxiety over what their lives have ultimately been worth,
their worries over whether their existences have ever meant anything at all.
The story ends on a beautiful metaphorical/actual note that says, yes, there is
a meaning, but you’re not necessarily going to be privy to it, and that is
possibly the thing that makes the meaning beautiful. I haven’t given you too
many specifics about the story line of Gravity but I will say that once the disaster strikes for the
astronaut the crux of the matter is that their deaths are not a given. They are
very likely, but not assured, and the story proceeds apace from that: these
characters are going to do everything they can to get home. So it’s two
completely different things at heart.
Every writer or filmmaker who endeavors in the realm of
science fiction owes a debt to Ray Bradbury. I think we can all agree on that.
But Ray Bradbury isn’t the secret writer of Gravity. I bet he totally would have dug the film, and I bet
if had not passed away in June of last year he would have been invited to look
at it well before I was.
Two swell ones out this weekend: Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster and Edgar Wright's The World's End, the latter featuring Simon Pegg, who's seen above as his character in the film experiences deep denial over the prospect of the evening's festivities coming to a close. Reviewed for MSN Movies.
Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman as Nancy and Ronald Reagan in Lee Daniels' The Butler. Leslie Nielsen did not return from the dead to play the white-haired fellow behind them. And the movie is the above-speculated curiosity but it's also more, as I discuss in my review of the picture for MSN Movies.
Seconds was not a hit when it was first released in the fall of 1966, but I recall interest in the movie being kind of high in my household at the time, when I was seven. My parents were not what one would nowadays call cinephiles, but they did, as they used to say, like movies, and they kept up with them to a certain extent. My mom, like, I suppose, many women of her generation (she was a couple months shy of 28 at the time of the film's release), was an admirer of Rock Hudson. She also enjoyed, to an extent, horror movies (it was at her behest that I had seen my first horror picture, The Haunting, a little prior to 1966, on the television, on an evening when my dad was working and she didn't want to watch alone). Seconds, then, was a movie that intrigued my mom and a lot of friends her age because a) it was an unusual picture, a disturbing picture, but also a "modern" picture, a picture about what was happening "now;" and b) because its central conceit had an old person who hated his life undergoing a seemingly miraculous transformation into, well, Rock Hudson.
In a sense that conceit seemed almost a joke, and in the DVD supplements I've looked at on Criterion's excellent new edition of John Frankenheimer's picture, both Frankenheimer's widow Evans Frankenheimer and the movie's female lead Salome Jens discuss the pains taken to make the transformation as credible as possible, how when Hudson first appears in the film he's still got the white hair of John Randolph, and convincing plastic surgery scars and so on. He only becomes dreamboat Rock after the scars have healed and his character undergoes extensive physical therapy and training (acted out by the fit Hudson in baggy sweat shirt and pants).
But it seemed like a joke, or a potential joke, for different reasons that it might to the contemporary cinephile or quasi-cinephile who's swallowed a lot of the conventional wisdom on Hudson, as in the multiple commentors on Dana Stevens' solid Slate consideration of the film who want us to make sure they are aware that Hudson wasn't much of an actor. Considerations of Hudson's acting ability (which know-somethingish types will forever continue to underate anyway) were not paramount to whatever appeal Seconds might have had; no, what made the Rock Hudson idea potentially funny was that it was in a sense too good to be true. This Rock Hudson was Hudson before his forced outing. The phrase "the man every man wants to be, and every woman wants to be with" or whatever it is, had not been coined yet (I don't think), but that is in fact the ideal which he represented to middle-class American pop-culture consumers. But at the same time Hudson himself, and the whole idea of the matinee idol, period, were on the cusp of cultural obsolescence. There's something about this fact, and the fact that Seconds was shot in black-and-white, which was then at the time supposed to lend a "documentary" or "real-life" feel to film footage, that added to the particular power with which the movie resonated at the time with the people who saw it. People who were not, as it happened, particularly invested in seeing Rock Hudson redeem or prove himself as an actor.
Because the matinee idol did not have to be an "actor;" performing virtuosity simply was not where their value was located. As it happens I believe Rock Hudson a very effective performer who may well have been a good, or "good," actor, and I think that it's almost neurotic to preface any assessment of his work with an assurance that you "know" he wasn't all that talented. With the exception of, you know, something now rightly deemed impossible in hindsight like Tazu, Son Of Cochise, Hudson was more often than not entirely right in executing the particulars of each of his film roles. Above and beyond the amusing MacMahonist notion (applied to Charlton Heston, as we recall) of physical beauty so acute as to constitute tragedy.
But it is still to Hudson's credit that when seen today his work in Seconds can live up to expectations that his actual audience didn't even think to entertain in 1966. His performance is remarkably somber and yet he doesn't make it drag on the audience; he seems to instinctively understand that a brooding Rock Hudson is still pretty easy on the eyes, which frees him up to really brood—not go "ultry-sultry" but look as if he's just been informed of the actual existence of death or something. Some sources say that he made the movie at around the time he was just beginning to share the reality of his life as a gay man with some of his friends; arguably, this dimension added some genuine depth to the who-am-I tortures his character puts himself through.
It is worth remembering, too, that sometimes Hudson's closest collaborators and biggest boosters could underestimate him. In the volume Sirk on Sirk the great director, who steered Hudson through several wonderful films, recalls choreographing Hudson for 1957's The Tarnished Angels: "There are some lines [from 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'...] I read [...] to Hudson in order to give him an idea of what Faulkner had in mind for the reporter character"—the lines are those beginning "No! I am not Prince Hamlet," and ending at "at times, the Fool"—This is what I wanted Hudson to be, and I told him so: 'You are not the Prince in this movie,' I told him—'that's Stack.' To my surprise, he understood, although he knew that this meant in a way he would have to play second fiddle."