Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Uncle Boonmee, Take Two: Radical Nostalgia

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an incredible film. So much so that I'm planning on seeing it three times, in two different theaters, and bloggin' a new post for each viewing. Hopefully, this will help me get at the astonishing play of ideas at work in this movie; if not, at least it'll be an unusually-for-me organized attempt. Either way, really. Stay tuned!)

Just before dashing over to the BFI for my second viewing of Uncle Boonmee, I finished reading Patrick Curry's fascinating Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity, which I stumbled upon a couple of weeks ago at a Wiccan bookstore. My relationship to The Lord of the Rings is, I imagine, quite typical for my generation: as a nerdy, book-loving kid, I first read it a little too young, and was left nonplussed by its fiercely ecological and unabashedly English elements. So, of course, the movies were perfectly designed for 13-year-old me, and I embraced them wholeheartedly (upon recent re-viewing, I have reservations, but that's another topic). Curry's passionate, insightful book is equally perfect for 21-year-old me, delving as it does into the multi-tiered mythology and anti-modernist subtext of Tolkien's epic, which I now can't wait to re-read for the first time in years. But back to the silver screen...

I walked into the BFI's Studio Theatre with plenty of half-thoughts from my first viewing to complete, but as I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul's magisterial fable again unfold, Defending Middle-Earth kept returning to mind. Curry takes to task critics who've lazily dismissed Tolkien as a simplistic, sentimental reactionary, defending Middle-Earth as a locus of principled opposition to (and, yes, retreat from) the flattening and destructive forces of technological modernity. Nostalgic, yes, but never disingenuous and never passive: Curry's term is "radical nostalgia," an idea I loved immediately and which stuck with me throughout my second take on Uncle Boonmee.

As Apichatpong's work has gradually gained recognition outside his native Thailand (culminating in Uncle Boonmee's Palme d'Or), western critics have taken upon themselves the usual task of describing his films in terms of western influences, for their readers' sake (and for their own, probably). Certainly, films like Blissfully Yours and Syndromes and a Century are so generous of spirit that they could easily appeal even to subtitle-haters, and so the question (as usual, IMO) is really one of distribution rather than translation, but that, again, is another topic. Besides, I'm as guilty as anyone--in my last post, I compared Apichatpong to David Lynch multiple times, and I probably will again before I'm done. I've also frequently heard him stacked up next to Renoir and Malick, both of which are valid enough reference points (after catching All About My Mother at the BFI last night with fresh eyes, I'd add Almodóvar to the list as well). Yet Tolkien is perhaps the closest thing to a Western kindred spirit to Apichatpong's latest; specifically, those aforementioned elements of Rings that stand in fierce ideological opposition to the Wagnerian sound-and-fury employed by Peter Jackson & Co. Like Tolkien's book, Uncle Boonmee realizes its subtle social polemics via wholly immersive fantasy, including lived-in magic, a constant sense of multiple unfolding stories, and above all, a revelatory emphasis on place, with characters inextricably linked to their homes in nature. Radical nostalgia, indeed.

I closed my last post by arguing that Uncle Boonmee represented the collapsing of spaces (modern/ancient, real/mythical) that Apichatpong had previously kept separate even as they naturally cross-fertilized. It would be easy, then, to cast this film as depicting civilizations in clash, but there's little strife in Uncle Boonmee--a few muttered slurs and a pang or two of homesickness, but that's all. If the circumstances that the titular uncle and his family find themselves in are decidedly fantastic (ghosts, visions, and Wookiees, oh my!), their reactions feel more like a kind of poetic realism. They crack jokes and keep up their routines as long as they can. A reunion dinner for Boonmee, his sister-in-law Jen, and her nephew Tong is interrupted by the Banquo-esque appearance of Boonmee's dead wife Huay and the revelation that the mysterious beast glimpsed at the film's beginning is Boonmee's long-vanished son Boonsong. Shattering stuff, but not five minutes later the camera has again isolated the three flesh-and-blood humans, as Boonmee earnestly begs a stunned Jen to take over his farm when he's gone--after all, if Huay can come back, Boonmee can too, to help Jen with the day-to-day affairs. Tong looks on silently, as he does for most of the scene, which ends when he cracks a goofy, can't-keep-this-in-any-more grin.

This is the milieu in which these people live, and in Boonmee's case, die. Huay and Boonsong have returned because they sense Boonmee's looming death due to kidney failure. He knows it, too: in an earlier scene, even after a doctor has made the trip to drain his kidneys (in a quiet dance of medical making-do very reminiscent of Syndromes and a Century), Boonmee asks him to stay "until the end," and continually reminds a reluctant Jen of the need to think about the future. Just before the doctor scene, Apichatpong shows us something strange and beautiful: a lush, overflowing plain, in which Boonmee has erected several lean-tos below which he grows vegetables. The structures stand out immediately, but nevertheless look completely at home: Apichatpong's artfully arranged mise-en-scène harmonizes man and nature. We cut to Boonmee staring out his bedroom window longingly as the doctor unpacks his equipment. Perhaps we just caught a glimpse of Boonmee's mind's eye, knowing his fate and thinking of the beauty he's been part of.

Windows are a key component of Apichatpong's aesthetic, never more so before than in Uncle Boonmee, where they act as a sort of skin. Renowned political geographer Stephen Jones conceived of border studies in this way--borders as a definite but permeable element of states, allowing for both identification and communication. So, too, do the outside and inside visually blur and bleed into each other in Uncle Boonmee, reflecting the impossibility of separating the titular man's life (lives?) from nature. When Tong first arrives at Uncle Boonmee's, he and Boonmee's assistant Jaai set about unpacking in a darkened room, giving it life as they spread out their things and turn on the lights, but the room's most gorgeous feature remains the glimpses of the jungle's tangle through the open windows.

That jungle is a locus of almost absurd fertility; in the opening scenes featuring the ox, there's a palpable sense that if the camera doesn't keep a close eye on the ground, it'll float off into an eternal arboreal sea. Cross-fertilization--or, sex--is a recurring theme in Uncle Boonmee: Boonsong transforms into a Monkey Ghost (think a Wookiee merged with that thing behind Winkie's in Mulholland Drive) after mating with one, and the film's most memorable side-story involves a mottled princess giving herself over to a catfish-god. Apichatpong's collisions are joyous (and funny), but also messy and a little squeamish, which is probably as it should be. These are the engines by which myth is reified: weird sex and matter-of-fact magic. Sounds right to me, and though Tolkien wasn't exactly the most libidinous of authors, he'd probably agree.

"Radical nostalgia" is that which asserts its place as if there never was anything else, but precisely by making room for the audience, relying on the slow excitement of magic coupled with magic's banality in this strange old world. The trees and valleys of northern Thailand, in Apichatpong's hands, are as fantastic as his film's more overtly mythical elements. These jungles are exactly where we expect magic to be, if it's anywhere. If the woods of New England are where Americans root their (gloomy, terrifying, morally severe) origin myths, as explicated in Irving and Hawthorne, then this jungle is the locus of Apichatpong's career-long pilgrimage. This is where the stories come from, and where they must return. And so must Uncle Boonmee; as Curry quotes Russell Hoban in Defending Middle-Earth, "We make fiction because we are fiction. We make stories because we are story." Step by step in Uncle Boonmee, nature takes back its own.

Yet the story ends in a modern hospital, among his survivors; Apichatpong's fable is broader and messier than simple transcendence. I'm getting more of a handle on what, exactly, it is; I'm looking forward to one more screening (tomorrow night, back at the Prince Charles), but I'm not expecting a feeling of "snapping into place," and I'm glad for that. Uncle Boonmee is above all open-ended; as Curry describes The Lord of the Rings, it's more rooted in hope than longing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Uncle Boonmee, Take One: Ghost Stories

(Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is an incredible film. So much so that I'm planning on seeing it three times, in two different theaters, and bloggin' a new post for each viewing. Hopefully, this will help me get at the astonishing play of ideas at work in this movie; if not, at least it'll be an unusually-for-me organized attempt. Either way, really. Stay tuned!)

It’s a lamentably typical complaint among filmgoers: “I couldn’t keep my eyes open.” But why does this have to be a negative? Certainly, drifting off in a classroom is a bad sign, for both student and teacher; our standards for art, however, ought to be different. How many of us fight off bouts of insomnia with the help of soothing, hypnotizing music? Few traditions cut across cultures like putting children to sleep with stories. As much as our sacred fables help establish our collective values, fears, and hopes, they also introduce stories as a world in between the conscious world and the unconsciousness of sleep. The best bedtime stories, the ones we return to as curious, analytic adults, are perfectly pitched somewhere among the detritus of history, parable, and fantasy. Universes are blurred, cross-fertilizing, evoking the mixture of preconscious fear and elemental excitement with which kids the world over greet nightfall. Eyelids droop. Dreams follow.

I kept my eyes closed during most of the opening credits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the latest cinephilic symphony from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, on whose shoulders I’m increasingly resting the future of the medium. In part, it was the sound. Before any words appeared onscreen, the sprawling basement theater of the Prince Charles Cinema was enveloped in the chirp of insects, the flow of distant streams, the creaking of trees, and that indefinable rustle that seems to hang behind every sound in the natural world. This may sound familiar, even banal, but the restful density of Apichatpong’s soundscapes introduce a calm anticipation like nothing I’ve experienced in any other art—like nothing I’ve experienced in anything outside of deep nature itself. Even the faint gray glow of the screen was too much. I closed my eyes.

I opened them to see an ox, tied to a tree, rooted in a silvery plateau surrounded by shadowy trees. The ox strains to pull free; the rope holding it forms a perfect line against the lush ellipticism of the surrounding environment. Apichatpong cuts to its human keepers, sitting and talking quietly in a nearby glade. The ox finally succeeds and trots off, with increasing speed and confidence, into the nearby jungle. The camera follows at first, but gradually begins to lag behind, lingering on the impossibly tangled trees, as if waiting for something to emerge from this moonlit mystery. Eventually, of course, one of the men finds the ox. A single, unbroken frame watches as he untangles the ox and strains to drag in back; as well as exemplifying Apichatpong’s wry, deadpan humor, the shot avoids any cuts that might have disrupted this enveloping jungle and the enchantment moving within. The latter is finally given concrete form, after a cut necessary and enlivening: a shadowy thing, hunched but huge, with laser-red eyes shining out of the jungle’s dusk.

Whenever I find myself somewhere overwhelmingly majestic, so beautiful as to seem unreal, I like to close my eyes for a moment or two. I imagine myself somewhere familiar, a street in my hometown, or a classroom, or my bed, waking from a dream. Just as I have my body and mind convinced, my eyes snap open again. There it still is: the stormy Atlantic, or the mountains of Hokkaido, or that fantastic creature lurking in Apichatpong’s jungle. When I opened my eyes again to Uncle Boonmee, I had one last glimpse of the beast before the title flashed onscreen. Waking up, or falling asleep?

It’s difficult to say. After the title, we jump out of the jungle and onto the road. The camera hovers inside a sedan, collecting still shots of each silently staring passenger in turn. Certainly, it’s a massive shift in mise-en-scène, and marks the introduction of the narrative proper in lieu of the opening one-off, but one element remains: the forefronting of sound. This time, we’re blanketed by the roar of the engine and the air-conditioning, yet the effect is the same—the sensorial domination of environment. But then, one of the passengers (Auntie Jen, played with immobile kindness by Jenjira Pongpas) cracks her window a bit, and a smile plays across her weathered face. The jungle whips by.

Such subtle dichotomies and ambiguous collisions define Apichatpong’s oeuvre, from which Uncle Boonmee marks both a diversion and an evolution. His earlier treasures Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century were radically split down the middle, initial narrative threads cast off and remade new. Malady’s feverish love story shifts sideways into a deep-jungle tiger hunt, while Syndromes literally starts over halfway through, transplanting its central fledgling couple from a small rural hospital to a sprawling Bangkok medical complex. Among Western critics, this recurring motif earned Apichatpong no end of comparisons to beloved formalist tricksters like Resnais and Lynch, but the Thai filmmaker is more playful, less capital-A ambitious, and ultimately less definable than his monolithic forebears. His virtuoso sequences are more synced to life rhythms, his imagist impact tied less to modernist deck-shuffling than nature’s eternal resurrections. Beauty and mystery pre-empt and replace theoretical teasing-out of meaning.

As such, while Malady and Syndromes may sound foreboding, academic, and mysterious in description, they couldn’t be less so in execution. Not that there’s anything wrong with those adjectives or the films they actually do describe, but Apichatpong’s filmography blazes a different path for explicitly elliptical narrative filmmaking. His films are meditative, horizontal takes on “total cinema,” immersive rather than suspenseful. Like latter-day Lynch, he works primarily with spare parts, but his sidling camera and graceful editing speak to a sparer, more accessibly rhythmic poetry than Lynch’s (brilliantly) overstuffed collages. For those familiar with his work, there’s nothing properly “mysterious” about Apichatpong’s filmmaking, because unlike Lynch (or Denis, or Haneke), he’s not actually hiding anything. His films’ constructions unmistakably concern themselves with the mechanics of narrative, but not at the ontological or ethical level, and teasing specific allegories out of Malady or Syndromes is an exceedingly difficult dead-end. Apichatpong is instead invested heavily in film’s relationship to ancient modes of storytelling, rooted in local myth, which is itself rooted in the kind of repetitions and gradual changes his work exemplifies. His full-length debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, is the kind of self-reflexive shaggy-dog story that ought to seem familiar to any Slacker fan, but is also grounded in (very specifically) Thai history, culture, and most thornily, contemporary politics.

In its fairy-tale asides, its deadpan collision of wild fantasy and treasured banality, and its individualistically grounded allusions to Thailand’s bloody history and uncertain present and future, Uncle Boonmee expertly guides the Apichatpong project into its second decade. Yet given its relative lack of formal play, its restless, goofy humor, and its literal evocation of ghosts and hybrids (as opposed to Malady’s ambiguous transformations), it’s tempting for even (especially) Apichatpong devotees to demote his latest to the status of “minor work.” Yet Uncle Boonmee is already stirring the interest of wider bases than the open-minded art-house frequenters who embraced his previous works. Perhaps this is because, instead of dividing up his various ancient/modern, real/mythical spaces, Apichatpong is concerned here with collapsing these spaces into each other, centered on an old man facing death—but, as the title indicates, also confronting life.

I’ve barely begun delving into the film’s specific achievements; I’m taking the advantage of second (and third) viewings to develop my thoughts further. Repetition and, perhaps, transformation—surely, Uncle Boonmee’s creator would approve.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Latter Day Saint

An interesting fate: Martin Scorsese, whose career-long love-and-hate struggle with the Hollywood studio game is deservedly the stuff of legend, has finally reached the Promised Land of commercial impunity and critical immunity just as his films have largely shed their individual ambition. There’s a knee-jerk cynical connection waiting to be drawn there, the half-validity of which I’ll get to in a moment, but even as my direct interest in the old man’s latest works has increasingly waned, my fascination with them as Event Films has only deepened. At this point, I’m equally interested in looking at our reactions to Scorsese films as the films themselves, as his cross-fertilization of awards-bait banality and genre-steeped cinephilia is poking us in a very interesting place.

Gangs of New York, for example, remains a most intriguing failure, which is about the most polite thing I can say about it. Scorsese threw himself headfirst into the eternally tricky game of historical filmmaking, and to my mind, came up empty (at best) every step of the way. His depiction of American religion was superficial and inert, his take on the bloody political transitions of the 1860s felt pandering and simplistic, and his visual and physical re-creation of his beloved city’s past stood out both garish and cheap, putting me in mind of an over-ambitious high school play (or, more relevantly to modern Hollywood, an over-faithful comic book adaptation). Above all, the film’s hammered-upon connections to 9/11 were tenuous, forced, substance-free, and more than a little insulting, especially given Spike Lee’s utterly committed, utterly faithful, and utterly successful 25th Hour that same year. Yet there’s something about Scorsese’s stubborn, catastrophic ambition, his undeniable panache for artfully loaded mise-en-scène, and his excavation (however clumsily) of a deeply embarrassing and easily forgotten time and place in American history that reminded me of what drew me to his films in the first place.

The critical community at large reflected a similarly confused unease. The film’s historicism and connections to modernity were faintly praised, but most reviews quickly honed in on the safest elements of Scorsese’s deranged spectacle: the fastidious design, Daniel Day-Lewis’ camera-magnet performance, and, of course, Marty (Still) Hearts NY. The film was dutifully nominated for Best Picture, but unlike Goodfellas or Raging Bull, nobody expected it to win, pulled passionately for it to do so, or was enraged when it didn’t. Gangs of New York seemed both more and less than what had been expected, and nobody was sure what to do with it; this isn’t the mark of a great, or even passable, film, but it did mark Scorsese out as a still-interesting, if not still-vital, figure in American film culture.

Indeed, the man was rapidly becoming larger than his movies, a trend which overtook The Aviator entirely. Scorsese’s filmmaking-as-OCD metaphor made for an instant talking point, and again, an excuse to talk about Scorsese’s career in facile macro terms. Ludicrous Citizen Kane comparisons were made early and often (because Marty loves old movies, doncha know), and older critics went into endless spasms of delight over Cate-playing-Kate (younger critics decrying Hollywood’s Broadway-style self-cannibalization were few and far between). Aviator remains a prime example of the growth of self-referential Hollywood hype machines. The film hadn’t even been released before writers were breathlessly wondering if this would be the one to deliver Marty his Lifetime Achievement Award Oscar, while the Academy, of course, increasingly takes its cues from that same overeager buzz. Certainly, there was more than a little retconning flop-sweat in the unanimous praise offered Scorsese’s (dull, fanboyish) biopic; as the director’s older masterpieces were increasingly being canonized as such, the Academy, among others, was almost explicitly looking to make up for lost time before the old man died on us.

As I said, it’s easy to argue that the Academy, et al only fully opened their doors to Scorsese when he started playing by their rules and letting his art suffer in the process. It’s also partially correct, as hinted at by his paint-by-numbers scripts and his films’ politics, alternately awkwardly forefronted and dangerously subsumed (the lack of attention paid to The Aviator’s Rove-ready conservatism remains a staggering critical gaffe). Still, I’m suspicious of any argument that casts Scorsese and the studios in rigid opposition. Like peer John Carpenter (now there’s a fun juxtaposition) he’s often spoken wistfully of his admiration for the studio-savvy directors of the ‘40s (Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock) and has always demonstrated willingness, even eagerness, to work within popcorn context. Keep in mind that the superficially auterist theories used to set Marty against Oscar are descended from the work of the Bazin acolytes (and Nouvelle Vague directors worshipped by a young Martin Scorsese) who filled the pages of Cahiers du Cinema with radical defenses of…Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock. Skip forward to the ‘90s, and Cahiers scribe and medium-shattering filmmaker Olivier Assayas is leading the charge to artistically recoup Clint Eastwood, whose superb drama Million Dollar Baby, unimpeded by studio pressure, would go on to upset The Aviator at the 77th Academy Awards.

Such are the feverishly creative confusions upon which Martin Scorsese has made his career, which is why “cross-fertilization” seemed to me an apt descriptor of his contemporary studio-flicks-cum-passion-projects. If his filmography poses questions about the relationship between passionate artists and bottom-line studios, there are (as usual for that relationship) no easy answers to be found. Besides which, the aforementioned flattening trend among studios, critics, and awards ceremonies over the last decade is bigger than any one director, as 2010’s horrifyingly communal cheerleading of mediocre-to-awful American products (Inception, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right) demonstrated. Ultimately, The Aviator’s soporific success has more in common with Dances With Wolves, the po-faced snoozer that beat out Goodfellas for the Academy’s top prize, than with anything in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

I’ve talked a lot about The Departed on this blog and elsewhere, which is odd given that it’s a rather unsurprising film that I mildly enjoy. Such is the fascinating and maddening nature of the triangulation among an aging, nostalgic Scorsese, an adoring public including both lifelong fans and curious relative newcomers, and the fungibility of the films themselves. What The Departed is (a superbly edited, otherwise unremarkable crime flick) isn’t nearly as interesting to me as what it represents: a remake of a Hong Kong blockbuster that nicked its aesthetic from Hollywood in the first place, a stodgily mounted genre entry that still reeled in younger audiences who’d seen Pulp Fiction before Goodfellas, an almost ideologically generic box-office smash that nonetheless rode the vapor trails of its director’s signature obsessions. The Departed, in its genesis mythos as much as its guns and Catholic crosses, is perhaps the definitive modern film product, almost grim in its determination to deliver a good time, squeezing the world and its medium dry to do so, and only barely succeeding.

Yes, it’s his best feature since Casino, but what’s the competition? Bringing Out the Dead? More importantly, notice how much it took to drag a decent film out of latter-day Scorsese: a framework on loan from Asia on loan from younger Scorsese, a script stuffed with as many rapid-fire quips and as much “local color” (the go-to critical buzzword for the recent slew of Boston crime flicks) as possible, a cast list overflowing with fame and testosterone, and a Sisyphean effort by longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who earned her Oscar far more than the director) to tie the whole damn thing together, all for a final product I’m comfortable giving a B- to, and then watching Inside Man for the 25th time instead. There’s simply too much loaded on to The Departed, by filmmakers and fans alike, and the flimsy, work-a-day material can’t hold it. Which is a shame, because unlike his prior two features, The Departed’s ambition is more mechanical than theoretical, and as Saturday-night male genre porn, it holds up just fine. But neither I nor the Academy can nudge the film from out of the maker’s shadow. Witness his old buddies Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas handing Marty his Best Picture trophy, and his knowingly self-deprecating acceptance speech. The Departed had just few enough flaws, and faced just little enough competition, to hop the fence. Not exactly cathartic.

Which brings me, finally, to Shutter Island, which I saw nine months ago but have resisted writing about until the wave of popular reaction had long passed the film by. And so it has: Shutter Island, being the most genre-specific, least awards-ready, and (to my mind) most representative of its maker’s unmistakable headspace among the recent pack, offers significantly fewer overarching talking points than its predecessors. The critical reaction has been muted and split, resembling more Gangs confusion than Aviator/Departed rapture—which didn’t stop Shutter Island from becoming the highest-grossing Scorsese film ever. Of course, his first three Leo vehicles had accomplished the same feat, indicating that the director has finally achieved that coveted Spielberg status: whatever else they do, his movies will keep making money, and keep allowing him to make the next one and make it the way he wants to. That last point is a particular coup. Scorsese’s name is so ingrained in generations of moviegoers and movie-lovers that the notion that, at the onset of the 21st century, he still had significant careerist terrain to conquer may sound absurd, but his story is full of disappointments, compromises, and films that simply aren’t his. His venerable reputation among critics, cinephiles, and especially fellow filmmakers has been cemented since Goodfellas (if not sooner), but not until Shutter Island outlasted The Departed was his stability as a commercial warhorse truly tested and fully established.

I can’t begrudge him this success, especially as I’ve yet to fully sort out my feelings about Shutter Island itself, as confounding a mediocre film as I’ve ever seen. And it is mediocre, make no mistake: ludicrously untenable in its narrative twists and turns, laughably histrionic in its pacing and constant, breathless upping of its wholly internalized stakes, while simultaneously (yet again) dubious in its period-piece absorption of history (including arguably the most unnecessary Holocaust divergence in recent memory, which is seriously saying something). Still, I find it easier to forgive “more! MORE! Flashbacks and HUAC and the hydrogen bomb!” than “whatever, just hit the 4/4 and don’t waste the producer’s money.” Ferocious, giddy pulp, even if largely unsuccessful, is vastly preferable to the sort of ham-handed, cool-hearted genre trash that seems to be all Hollywood can come up with lately.

I’ve somehow managed to get this far without talking specifically about genre, and that’s as silly as Shutter’s anagrammed climax. Scorsese doesn’t just “work within” or “wrestle with” film genre, he loves it, deeply and excitedly; this unabashed geekdom, as explicated in his documentaries My Voyage to Italy and A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is arguably more central to his legacy than stunted gunplay or conflicted Catholicism. (Just ask Quentin Tarantino.) Shutter Island is fully fermented in its maker’s adoration of the hardboiled pulp flicks made in the 1950s, the decade Shutter can’t escape. As such, the film never comes close to establishing a distinctive identity, but I still enjoyed the experience of watching it unfold far more than Gangs or Aviator, if not as much as The Departed. Scorsese’s latest genre fixations (horror and period thriller) are rooted in the sensorial rather than the pseudo-intellectual (Gangs) or familiarly emotional (Aviator); as such, Shutter Island “just works” in a way those others didn’t. It’s difficult to argue with a jump or a flinch, and Shutter delivers plenty of both. It’s also hard not to admire the loving visual flairs (rusty, dangling manacles, rain lashing furiously against patterned windows, a still-lit cigarette on the edge of a cliff) and the Robbie Robertson-curated score, but even Shutter’s most acute pleasures are never grounded the way the generic and political are intertwined in Polanski’s masterful The Ghost Writer.

Scorsese’s film is the sort of half-competent drivel best enjoyed with a wandering mind, letting the eyes drift to the corner of every shot and doing one’s best to ignore the nonsense being spouted and visualized up-front. Lord knows I love watching masterful craft applied to B-movie aesthetics—my alltime favorite filmmaker is Brian de Palma, who could’ve taught his old pal Scorsese a thing or two about how to make this particular movie. (Remember The Fury? C’mon, let’s go watch it. Haha, John Cassavetes is exploding, awesome! Rewind!) Although Shutter Island as a whole betrays a director running seriously low on ideas, the (relative) lack of self-seriousness here is undeniably refreshing. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it: Shutter Island may be the first Scorsese picture in over a decade not to be nominated for Best Picture.

The great irony here is that Martin Scorsese, a richly experienced cinephile whose aged perspective could hold many lessons for young filmmakers, appears to have embraced the worst aspects of many young filmmakers: unfiltered reverence for complex subjects, overstuffed mise-en-scène that reflects carelessness as much as obvious talent, tasteless politics, too many punchlines (of various kinds), and most painful of all in relation to Scorsese, a banal, overly stagey treatment of star performers. Decades distant, the Scorsese-DeNiro project stands as the most fruitful director-actor collaboration in film history. What’s to be said about Marty-Leo? Not much, beyond the self-duplicating aura of spectacle.

It’s that sense of a navel-gazing industry and artist that I keep returning to, as Scorsese’s constant teasing out of film-as-commercial-industry, film-as-genre-storytelling, and film-as-personal-project has stopped leading to soul-shaking cinema unlike anything before it and started leading to movies so schizoid and self-reflexive that they barely exist on their own, in ways both fascinating and deadly boring. Spread himself thin, losing his touch; pick your cliché, and then wrestle with the fact that Marty’s more successful at the box office than ever. Again, this isn’t a case of a simple binary between critics and audiences, or between hardcore and casual fans. This is a case of a truly strange artist becoming a little less strange, and thereby becoming something even stranger, practically unique in our time—with the exception, again, of Spielberg. Again like Spielberg, Scorsese has become a brand while keeping the personal and (perhaps more importantly) ever-evolving nature of his work alive. Even as I increasingly appreciate Scorsese more as a social phenomenon than a vibrant artist, and even as I stop enjoying putting my money towards his next seat-filler, I’ll keep showing up to watch.

Friday, January 14, 2011

And The Next Year

Yesterday, I caught Mike Leigh’s painstakingly devastating Another Year at the Prince Charles Cinema (I'm in London!) I'd seen it before at home, and it instantly shot high up my favorite films of 2010, but now that I’ve seen it on the big screen, I’d change everything about that blurb I wrote. Such is the bittersweet nature of second viewings! I can’t believe that I didn’t mention the overwhelming change in lighting marking the transition from autumn to winter; as a fervent acolyte of wintertime, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the season visualized better, and the shift is as unforgettable as the jump from 1911 to 2005 in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s similarly partitioned Three Times. There’s so much to talk about with Another Year that I couldn’t possibly get it all in the first time around, or at least, that’s my excuse.

Even more than that final evolution, however, I want to talk about the beginning. It’s a disorienting one if you (like me) go in knowing the major players (Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, all resplendent here) and find them all absent from the surprisingly extended opening scene. Another Year’s first shot rests steadily on Imelda Staunton; Leigh fans know her as the anchor of the director’s still-perfect Vera Drake, though she’s probably (OK, definitely) better known as Perfesser Umbridge. Anyone with the latter role in mind looking for the actress to suffer will be much too rewarded by Another Year’s opening counseling session; any schadenfreude will be summarily disposed of by Leigh’s camera, which stays tight up to Staunton even as her tight-faced Janet tries desperately to avoid all attention. There’s another woman in the room (Michele Austin’s Tanya, making the absolute most of minimal screen time) but for the first several minutes, we only know her as a disembodied voice and, in one breathtaking shot, as a wedding-ringed hand on Staunton’s impossibly tensed back. That off-camera voice is soothing, intelligent, and loving, but Janet’s having none of it; her eyes alternately stare blankly and flash with frustration and despair, her brittle voice cracking as she denies all help. One can barely imagine her coming to this doctor’s office in the first place, as if Leigh abandoned her here without warning and left her to find her own way out. Yet here she is.

Tanya eventually convinces her to come back and see a counselor, at which point we cut (finally; cuts never arrive as soon as you expect in Another Year) to Broadbent and Sheen, scurrying around their lush allotment in the rain. It’s spring, the beginning of Leigh’s four-season cycle, and we’ve found the couple we’ll be following through the next winter. Yet that opening scene took place inside, in the gray office gloom, with no indication of the season raging on outside. Some things are eternal, such as the state of just barely hanging on.

We do see Janet again, coming to see Sheen’s Gerri, who works as a medical counselor; I was reminded strongly of the anonymous crooks’ nightmarish reappearance in A History of Violence, but once Janet disappears around Gerri’s closing door, we never see her again. Gerri exhales and sags, exhausted after such a difficult patient.

As I said in my aforementioned best-of-the-year blurb on Another Year, Lesley Manville’s dizzy, dejected Mary quickly becomes Leigh’s focus, but after a second viewing, I’d argue it’s more productive to ignore the protagonist question. Another Year succeeds brilliantly in large part because it separates narrative primacy from point of view. The latter is irretrievably Tom and Gerri’s; opening aside, we are tied to their house and the parade of visitors streaming through it, united by the doting couple’s hospitality. Yet Tom and Gerri don’t control Another Year, because for all their listening ears, they can’t really do anything about the misery surrounding them. Their well-guarded happiness fences out all else, through no fault of their own; every time we return to that allotment, it looks less like an overflowing paradise than a tirelessly maintained fortress of contentment besieged by an unhappy world. They lie in their no doubt decades-old bed, sharing a few distracted words on Mary’s fragility that seem frankly inadequate when set against Manville’s shattering performance, reminding me of Fargo’s Marge and Norm Gunderson sheltering themselves in each other. (There’s another essential winter film.)

Narrative primacy belongs to Tom and Gerri’s guests, yet they’re only guests, passing through on to who knows what, although we’re given a good guess: “nothing changes,” Janet mutters. “If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change?” Gerri asks her. “Different life,” Janet replies. Of course, unlike Mary, we never see anything of her life. Janet seems helpless and hopeless, but she did come to Gerri, which few would have predicted. “It’s up to you,” Gerri tells her before Leigh closes the door on her. Who knows where she went?

“As long as we’re friends, I’m all right,” Mary will later tell a dubious Gerri to win her back. The opposite might be true, but that’s not really what Leigh’s interested in. Another Year’s final shot finds Mary surrounded by her willing friends and a new prospect, yet Leigh gradually kills the sound and frames her alone. Among those not tuned into the director’s wavelength, this closing has been cast as the cruel icing on the pessimistic cake, but I see it as a final note of grace for an unsentimental but hardly fatalist film. When Gerri makes clear that she has an inner circle running deeper than her houseguests (“This is my family”), she cedes Another Year’s focus on Mary to Leigh and the audience, and reveals the film’s universal, rather than personal, nature. The opening scene is intentionally incongruous, reminding us throughout that the lives on display here are bigger than one charming retreat on the outskirts of London. We’re all guests in each other’s lives, and Tom and Gerri have no more insight into Mary’s future than I do. And all I can do is root for her, and I do. I really, really do.