Monday, December 20, 2010

Top Ten 2010

Films I loved, 2010.

1. Everyone Else (dir. Maren Ade)

We’re given so many shitty movies about couplehood every year that we can easily forget what we’re missing, and what we’re missing is sublime, soul-shaking treasures like Everyone Else. The twin poles of comedy and drama strangle couple films (a term I deliberately choose over “romance”). The former’s become too mean, and as a result, hopelessly disingenuous, while the latter never rings true because it gives the ending away. The ending: Everyone Else cuts to black on a near-silent image so piercingly beautiful I won’t describe it, a perfect cut-to-black, viscerally unexpected, but it couldn’t hope to end any other way.

Before that, Maren Ade explores every possible way a camera can explain two people: meeting them together, drawing them apart before accidentally running them back into each other, breaking them against another couple, watching one finally let loose and dance while the other shrieks with embarrassment, watching one ramble passionately but hurtfully while the other goes cold inside. I haven’t seen a couple-film this tuned in to the momentousness of shared time since Linklater’s epochal Before Sunset, which is absolutely not a comparison I make lightly. “Nothing happens?” The yearning tragedy at the core of Everyone Else is that nothing can happen, and yet it can still all go to tearful hell: such is the dance of two people.

Two people: Birgit Minichmayr as the whirling, seizing, momentary Gitti, and Lars Eidenger as the turning, sketching, concluding Chris, performances unthinkable without the other even as they necessarily cut each other apart. Authorship is inevitably blurred. Is Ade pulling and pushing as she must to find the proper rhythm? Or would this hurtful symbiosis simply not play itself out any other way, appropriately finding the heart of its dancing language in two cheesy songs?

You know how a song can unearth an element of tension in a couple simply by being about romantic tension, even if that idea in fact has no bearing in the couple’s reality? But, of course, the tension bears out that idea, proves it was there all along, even if it seemed silly and surmountable. There, in that space between what shouldn’t happen and what’s about to happen, is Everyone Else. Go there, and this will make you tremble; but unlike almost every other great movie about couples, I can only suggest that you watch this alone.

2. Mother (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

When Korean cinema is still most readily associated on these shores with shrieking provocateurs like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, it’s heartening to see Bong Joon-ho’s feverishly brilliant The Host sitting atop the all-time South Korean box office record. For all that it ably hit the obligatory monster-movie genre beats, The Host dazzles first and foremost with its Spielbergian shifts in mood. A collective funeral tips gradually into cacophonous farce; a superficial satire of American hegemony becomes a cutting critique of Korean acquiescence; a family’s desperate wish to find its lost child is given visual life before being (almost too) brutally torn away.

This same delicate mastery of craft bubbles over even more beautifully in his latest picture. Mother finds Bong working in the same territory as his overlooked Memories of Murder, using crime genre mechanics to starkly outline petty injustice in small towns. While that previous film, however, was appropriately somber and developed into an unabashed epic, Mother is dizzying and overripe, overflowing with saturated color and flashbacks-within-flashbacks and some hypnotizing, off-kilter dance routines. Bong’s corresponding shifts in tone, from screwball comedy to grim police procedural to painfully desperate family drama, are again jarring, and again the director never strains to tie his strands together. He sifts these sands not to shell-game us into seeing auterist profundity where there is none, but to allow the resigned melancholy at the core of all of his films room to reach the surface organically.

It’s a precarious art, and Mother would be unthinkable without Kim Hye-ja at the center. As the titular Mother, she gives the performance of the year: hunched and quivering, but only to slyly deflect blame at the human obstacles between her and her troubled son, whom she defends with equal parts righteous anger and slightly icky protectiveness. As the movie cheerfully loses itself down cannibalistic plot-rabbit-holes, it becomes less a mystery than a half-loving, half-fearful character study. Indeed, when she finally explodes, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve seen on screen all year. Yet when she grimly celebrates her meaningless victory at film’s end, it’s oddly moving, a blow for tiny old women in cinema, and the latest in a string of triumphs for the greatest Korean director working.

3. White Material (dir. Claire Denis)

Many among the Claire Denis faithful were spooked upon hearing that her latest sensuous gift to cinephilia was her most explicitly postcolonial work since her autobiographical debut Chocolat. Me, I was just worried about a Denis film sans cinematographer Agnès Godard, whose feral lens always took the director’s (purposefully) vague conceptual headings as starting points, transforming films as superficially divergent as the vampiric horrorshow Trouble Every Day and the Joycean epic L’Intrus into equally enigmatic studies of bodies in motion.

But I’m digressing: fanbase prejudices aside, White Material spins and jumps beautifully before Yves Cape’s camera, and is certainly not diminished by its political trappings. Denis has a masterful knack for addressing issues such as global diaspora (L’Intrus) and decaying imperialism (Beau travail) through the physical actions of her unknowable protagonists, making her arguably the subtlest political filmmaker of her generation. Her lush ellipticism is in full force in White Material, appropriately enough for a film about a profitable family’s refusal to recognize its order collapsing all around. If she’s more honed in than in previous works, perhaps it’s because that order was so hermetic and its destruction so enveloping.

That “order” being French colonialism in Africa; crucially, Denis never specifies the country in question. Indeed, she never fully elucidates the cause of the civil strife that slowly overtakes the Vial family’s coffee plantation. All we’re left with is her usual peerless examination of identities in flux. Isabelle Huppert’s Maria (a perfectly restrained performance) might’ve paid more attention to her son’s bizarre and heartbreaking attempts to assimilate last-minute with the African locals if she weren’t so stubbornly focused on preserving her everyday routines. Routines, of course, exist to be broken in Denis films, and the director only gradually lets on that there’s more at stake in White Material than, say, a woman’s last one-night stand before moving in with her boyfriend (Friday Night). It’s that tipping point, and finding ever more revelatory ways of conveying it, that fascinates Denis most. When Maria’s breaking point comes, it steps into the movie from the side (like a velociraptor), overwhelmingly unexpected, breathtaking in its naturalism, and casual in its ability to completely alter the film. There’s really no point in worrying; nothing can stop Claire Denis, or even slow her down.

4. Another Year (dir. Mike Leigh)

Like Richard Linklater, his closest American analogue, Mike Leigh continues to make widely beloved movies even as his name itself gradually fades from public discourse. It would be too easy to argue that Leigh’s generous humanism naturally diminishes him as an overt auteur, and it would also be wrong: his politically strident, distinctly British oeuvre speaks to a singular and vital sensibility. Leigh allows his actors to teeter on the brink of disintegration, and while they wobble, he hints at entire lives with his unblinking framing and graceful pans, cutting across years (or, in this case, seasons) with a whispery touch.

Another Year is among his least conceptually ambitious films, but perhaps his most strikingly arranged, continually seeking fresh perspectives on that most universal of topics: aging. Like any worthwhile study of the years between middle age and inescapable dotage, Another Year positions itself somewhere between gloomy fatalism and crack-of-dawn optimism. Death is getting closer, but it’s not the only thing worth talking about. Leigh’s greatest trick is anchoring this examination outside his ostensible protagonists, a content couple (Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, gradual and graceful and wonderful) whose occasional flare-ups never produce the expected treacly dissolution. Why should they?

Instead, Leigh leans in closer and closer to Lesley Manville’s Mary, whose smiley-faced disintegration registers sad and true as she, in turn, leans on the central couple for salvation from age. Still, neither Leigh nor his other characters ever condescend to her, as she isn’t yearning for companionship or even youth, really, as much as independence. Her blow-ups and crawls-back, her desperate flirtations and cutting dismissals would all have been used as so much cruel ammunition by a lazier filmmaker. Instead of framing her struggle as a fatalist end in itself, pointed inexorably towards death, Leigh witnesses it as a new beginning for a woman in transition: a truly subversive perspective on old age in film. All this wouldn’t be as exceptional without Another Year’s structural conceit: we watch these characters waltz through all four seasons in the turn of, yes, just another year, understanding these events as vital and often terrible, but as natural and acceptable as sun and rain and snow. Thus does Leigh continue to assert his voice while letting his painfully lovely fuckups find theirs.

5. Bluebeard (dir. Catherine Breillat)

It’s a confused-perspective, unabashedly staged recasting of one of the most infamous of fairy tales, delivered by France’s most daring feminist filmmaker. So, critic’s delight, unquestionably! But what a delight: the most intricate and absorbing cine-essay of the year.

You know the story, and if you think it about for the first time in years, you’ll realize how ripe it’s always been for feminist subversion: a wife done in not only by her curiosity but by her desire to understand her new husband, and a husband who cloaks wife-butchery in the sanctity of patriarchal ritual. It’s that sense of suffocating tradition that Breillat simultaneously preserves and undercuts, locking her young women into a desperate maze: driven from the nunnery to forced marriage by their father’s death and penned up in a cartoonishly narrow, empty castle. Breillat, however, is never content to pity Lola Creton’s Marie-Catherine, who pragmatically accepts her dire straits and insists on making of them what she can. In the film’s most powerful addition to the sparse original text, she demands of Bluebeard her own private room that he may not enter, so that she can live out from under his enormous shadow. He agrees; as portrayed by Dominique Thomas, Bluebeard is an astonishingly gentle giant. It’s believable that this Bluebeard wouldn’t want to kill, which underscores the absurdity of the narrative rites that “demand” he does so.

Yet this Bluebeard is a story-within-a-story, being read aloud by two modern-day sisters, who use the tale as a springboard for their own nascent musings about marriage and sexuality. Here, Breillat’s update is wry and telling, but ambiguous. She understands acutely how easily repressive traditions are handed down, but acknowledges the blurry filters inherent to cultural fiction. Bluebeard is nothing so simple as a polemical condemnation. Instead it earns that most abused of cinematic qualifiers: it’s a worthy meditation.

Given its superficially fussy period trappings, Bluebeard already threatens to recede as a minor Breillat project in comparison with her longer and more visually bold works. This is as it should be: Bluebeard is a one-off, an 80-minute tap on the shoulder, a reminder of the remarkable wells of thought yet to be plumbed in our mustiest of classics.

6. Alamar (dir. Pedro González-Rubio)

Credit to the brilliant folks at Reverse Shot for pointing me in this direction. Given its tactile, luminous photography of Mexico’s sun-scorched Banco Chinchorro reef, one could imagine Alamar functioning wonderfully as a region documentary (or an episode of Planet Earth). But Alamar is a narrative film, albeit one that follows real lives amidst the coral. Its lasting brilliance comes from director González-Rubio’s graceful triangulation among the gorgeous reef, an enraptured audience, and a fisherman and his son, who live for their surroundings but are never reducible to audience surrogates.

While González-Rubio’s focus remains squarely on the Banco Chinchorro and the life teeming around it, he’s a wise enough filmmaker to remove himself, rather than his human subjects, from the thematic equation. Alamar envelops Jorge Machado and his radiant son Natan into the cycles of the reef, not as exoticized objects, but as devotees to a life of beauty. The film hints at Natan’s parents’ divorce not as a divergent, shoehorned-in subplot, but as a revelation on Natan’s role in the film: he’s a gift, a reminder to his parents of their once-love, just as the reef stands as an implicit locus of environmental protection. Certainly, Alamar indulges in some expected narrative twists, most notably Natan finding a baby egret he must inevitably return to the wild. Thankfully, both González-Rubio and his (non)actors treat the episode quietly, in passing, not so much as a rite of passage (Natan starts young and stays young) as a simple fact of life for humans literally diving into nature.

In one of my most recent drunken ramblings, I concluded that there are only two nouns with which one can accurately describe a great film’s relationship to its audience. One is “pilgrimage,” and the other is “gift.” Alamar begins as the former, and reveals itself as an undeniable exemplar of the latter. This movie glows with generosity at every level, from character to environment and back, from camera to subjects and objects, from filmmaker to life, from screen to audience. The last missing link is from the audience back, and believe you me, you’ll be ecstatic to give it.

7. Wild Grass (dir. Alain Resnais)

So, to get this out of the way: Nearly fifty years after Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais is still making movies, they’re still better than anything you’ve ever done, and the state is still paying for them. Suck on it.

Indeed, Wild Grass pulses with the bratty joy of an intermittently brilliant artist that ought to be well past his prime. Godard’s still throwing himself against the Nouvelle Vague’s prison walls, and his latest (yep, it’s called Socialisme) is blank-facedly didactic enough to derail his late-career revival. Resnais, to continue the metaphor, is better suited to tricking the guards out of their keys. And then replacing their guns with rubber duckies. I’m getting off track, which is probably his point.

Wild Grass dances through as many delirious monologues and cacophonous sound bridges and saturated slo-mos and visualized thought bubbles as possible, and each sets up and justifies the next. Although the film begins in the well-worn territory of a chance meeting, Resnais never defines the (increasingly perverse) relationship between the (increasingly perverse) central characters. Instead, he's interested in the sensorial ripples such a random occurrence can have on those affected, so that much of the film takes place nestled inside giddy expectation and wild fantasy. Wild Grass is unapologetically histrionic, stretching each scene well beyond the breaking point, but (crucially) never allowing its bubbling actors to break character or indulge in cheap irony. Is it a farce? Never. It’s a gift. The film subverts cliché for the sheer anarchic kick of it: Sabine Azéma’s strikingly masculine beauty overwhelms any of the traditionally seductive faces on screen, familial subplots begin as screwball distraction and then stay right there, and instead of knitting every dangling thread into place, that goddamn beautiful ending trips off like a terrarium take on 2001’s Journey Beyond the Infinite, closing on a girl curious about cat food.

I’m not doing a particularly coherent job of describing this movie, which wouldn’t worry me except that Wild Grass may sound snarky or masturbatory in the retelling, and it’s so, so not. It’s joyous and messy and vibrant, straining off the screen even as it gets more surreal. It does things with the color purple I’d never imagined possible. Watch it, watch it, watch it.

8/9. Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl & The Strange Case of Angelica (both dir. Manoel de Oliveira)

Speaking of the old guard, Manoel de Oliveira’s Wikipedia page takes as its second sentence: “He is currently the oldest active film director in the world.” Unlike Resnais, who seems bent on scattering his talent in as many directions as possible before death comes for him, Oliveira has only grown more in control of his aesthetic in recent years. His two latest features, however, when taken together, demonstrate how generous and inquisitive that aesthetic remains.

He’s sharp enough to cap Eccentricities at 64 minutes, allowing the gently surrealist romance to drift in and out like a crucial but passing episode. (I’m reminded of Eno’s “Another Green World,” a 102-second gem that places its emphasis firmly on fade-in and fade-out.) Angelica, by comparison, is left enough room to loop all the way back on itself, tying both the technical and divine threads of cinema together by bringing a dead woman to life before a photographer’s lens. Along the way, Angelica opens up further and further to the ineffable and unknowable, siding unashamedly with the madmen in pursuit of the universe, even as it continually reminds us of the weight of its post-WWII setting (Ricardo Trêpa’s protagonist Isaac is never allowed to forget his status as a Sephardic Jew). Eccentricities is less explicitly fantastic, but is equally elevated above the banal, filtering romance through windows and preserving an air of misty anonymity that threatens to send the film headlong into the ether. Both are thematically weighty, genre-bending works, but are both essentially humble, exploring the medium through slow pans and silent revelations, letting conversation dictate pace.

2010 was a film year like any other, complete with overstuffed librettos from occasionally-too-ambitious European filmmakers. Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love were simply too big too digest their pleasures comfortably (and, less charitably, too big to not include some gaping flaws). I’d never term Oliveira a minimalist filmmaker, so devoted is he to the little magical-realist riffs that characterize non-political Portuguese film. Yet by burrowing instead of painstakingly building, he creates films that glow in corners and angles, born to age as well as their 102-year-old maker. This cinema is life, and Manoel de Oliveira knows he’s still alive.

10. The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

It would’ve been enough for The Social Network to have been acceptable, to not have been yet another example of old money failing utterly to come to terms with new money and wasting everyone’s money in the process. The movie passed that test, and more. But you know that already. So what’s left to say?

Yes, it’s very, very funny, but more importantly, it’s impossibly fleet. What separates worthwhile (or, occasionally, wonderful) Hollywood product from awards-bait bilge isn’t writing or acting; it’s editing. Banal shot-reverse-shot setups and plodding, linear cutting killed the studio drama. The Social Network succeeds—brilliantly—by staying constantly on the move, kinetically shifting between Facebook’s origin story and the agonizing fallout for its various creators. David Fincher follows up his decades-decaying masterpiece Zodiac by again destabilizing time, reflecting not only the phenomenal speed of Facebook’s genesis, but the earthshaking impact Mark Zuckerberg (et al) had on the social fabric of millions of lives. He was, indeed, an asshole, but he made a world. A world of assholes? Maybe, but…

But, again, you know what The Social Network is, and there are plenty of films that are those things that aren’t nearly as good. What makes The Social Network so (dare I say) important is what it isn’t. What it isn’t is an answer, and everyone involved deserves an Oscar just for that. Facebook and its creators don’t represent a question, they represent a phenomenon, one that the filmmakers are careful to present neither as a changer of Everything nor as just another progression of the zeitgeist. It’s something in between the wholly new and the Homeric-level old, a mixture of private and public and brilliant and scary and banal and awesome and, as the film emphasizes, more than a little sad. To paraphrase Isle of Flowers, it’s something that no one, including Zuckerberg himself, could fully explain, but also something that no one could fail to understand. If The Social Network carries a lesson, it’s not for Facebook, but for film: this is how to fill theaters while talking intelligently about the world. The only essential American movie of the year.

Best Director: Claire Denis for White Material

Best Cinematographer: Eric Gautiér for Wild Grass

Best Editor: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall (what names!) for The Social Network

Best Writer: Maren Ade for Everyone Else

Best Actor: Kim Hye-ja for Mother

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day Break

No romance flick (or book, or play) is complete without the lie. It's the sturdiest of third-act twists, the simplest of disruptive conflicts, the easiest ending reveal. And it's not what you did, one of them will say. It's that you lied about it. You didn't trust me. You didn't trust us. How can I trust us, our story together?

Of the many delightful things about Richard Linklater's dazzling walking-around-European-cities duet, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, near the top has to be the breezy avoidance of that standard arc. Perhaps "avoidance" is the wrong word; "translation" might be a better one. By centering the drama around time, and Jesse and Celine's choices at the inevitable endpoint, Linklater gives the two episodes a frame devoid of much narrative contrivance.

But the lie is there, and though Jesse and Celine help it along, it ultimately belongs to Linklater alone.

Upon its 2005 American release, Wong Kar-Wai's delirious, devastating 2046 was frequently compared to Before Sunset, and for good reason. Both were sequels to open-ended love stories, Wong's In the Mood for Love and Linklater's Before Sunrise. Both sequels played with issues of time, memory, and regret, watching their damaged protagonists fail to recover from the feelings they'd opened up in the golden-hued originals. That said, the filmmakers themselves utilize completely different languages. Wong, thanks in large part to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, has one of the most visually ravishing filmographies in recent memory. While In the Mood for Love played out like an exquisite portrait disrupted by unruly emotion, 2046 is feverish and spastic, its obscenely lush reds and interchangeably lovely paramours undercutting Mr. Chow's blind attempts to drown out his past failures.

Linklater, on the other hand, sets his diptych in two of the loveliest cities on Earth (Vienna and Paris, respectively), but refuses to indulge in much sky-gazing. Neither Sunrise nor Sunset establishes a distinctive visual framework beyond its protagonists' faces; it's only through Jesse and Celine, rootless wanderers and then careworn adults, that the audience can access the beauty of their surroundings. Linklater trusts dialogue like few directors working, and more importantly, he trusts his actors to shape that dialogue (it helps that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy co-wrote Sunset). His scripts are delightful in and of themselves, peppy and sharp, but in the hands of Hawke and Delpy, they become sacred: a constantly re-orienting glimpse into their hesitations, their wounds, and their desires.

But very rarely their lies. The novelty of random love in Sunrise was dangerous mystery enough, and while both characters' guards gradually fall throughout Sunset, they begin not in the realm of deception so much as distraction, letting timing carry them along to admit the most wrenching dependencies. No big reveal or third-act twist required--just talking, and a final choice, just like last time.

There's one exception, and it's jarring enough that I almost interrupted my first viewing of Sunset to frantically flip back to Sunrise, wondering how I'd missed it. "It" being, as usual, sex. Not far into Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine mask/reveal their overwhelming shock at seeing each other by discussing Jesse's new book, which tells the story of their night together nine years previous. Celine gently teases him for including a fabricated sex scene. Jesse, wounded, protests that they actually did screw that fateful night. Celine flatly denies it. Later on, she wearily admits that she remembers: "We had sex twice, you idiot!"

It wasn't the traditional big re-orienting lie that forever (i.e., until the credits) alters the romance. How could it? There's no foundation to Jesse and Celine's love, no established stable base for a betrayal to eat away at. They live in one night, and then nine years of memory: it's theirs to relive and remake. That's their lie, and I can't begrudge it to them.

It's Linklater's lie that intrigued me. For once, the audience isn't in on the game--as far as what we saw in Sunrise (namely, a conversation in which they decided not to bone), Celine was originally telling the truth and Jesse had embellished for the sake of his book. Celine's ultimate admission left me adrift. If they hadn't remembered wrong, had I?

I opened up Before Sunrise, skipped ahead to the cemetery scene. There they are, impossibly younger than they were just a few minutes ago. There, they have the conversation. There, they're snuggling. Cut, to the sunrise over the trees.

...oh. I'm impossibly stupid. Had I really missed the most basic of all cuts, the "guys-they-got-it-on-but-now-it's morning" maneuver? I had, after a lifetime of seeing that exact prim sidestep in film after film. How had I failed to understand?

Partially, of course, I took Jesse and Celine at their celibate word, trusting naif that I am. I also trusted Linklater, who'd lovingly displayed every awkward silence, every almost-fight, every teasing meta-conversation throughout the film; it honestly never occurred to me to look for the lie, the cut. I'm not criticizing Linklater in the least--much as I, uh, might enjoy a Hawke-Delpy sex scene, it would've been a massive stylistic departure, not to mention an invitation for a less viable rating. The cut is simple and unassuming, emerging almost out of respect for the couple's privacy rather than out of deference to audience sensibilities. Most importantly, though, it's Sunrise's clearest line forward to Sunset, pregnant with meaning and sadder to return to even than the first film's desperately open ending.

Before Sunset is one of the handful of films I'm happy to call my favorite. When I returned to watch Before Sunrise all the way through, I was prepared for it to be irreparably tarnished, paltry in the shadow of its impossibly resonant progeny. I was wrong: Sunrise, always a delight, is more moving than ever if you know what's coming. Nothing is casual any more. You know that every sweet moment will be pored over for years to come, fixed in amber-hued memory by beautiful people who can't forget. Fixed, and then blurred, shifted, changed, vanished. Sunset expands and deepens every idea presented in Sunrise, but Sunrise holds the weight of history over Sunset, and Linklater's greatest gift is that he refuses to pick sides. He lies in Before Sunrise, and the truth is tucked into Sunset like an askew corner of a puzzle piece. "Think of this as time travel," Jesse says with a grin, "from then to now." Two lies, but one truth.

Altered Ego

My last two posts were devoted to dissing Paul Thomas Anderson's early ensemble entries Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Thankfully, I ease up when it comes to his next film. Punch Drunk Love, his decidedly odd Adam Sandler vehicle, was easily his best work to date, and it remains a bizarrely engaging work, quite unlike anything else I've ever seen.

There are three standard critical lines on Punch Drunk Love, two of which I agree with.

One: Love is an aesthetic triumph, built around sound--Jon Brion's ecstatically jagged score and those hypnotic harmonium passages. The lurching camera follows the same wild angles, underscoring the film's frantic nervousness, a rootless, self-possessed anxiety. Even more than Sandler's Barry Egan, Punch Drunk Love itself has a trigger temper, scurrying between dragging banalities, wordless fury, and brief, sweet releases. It's the most pleasurable of itches.

Two: Love is an excavation and exploration of "Adam Sandler," the screen persona. His mugging comedy, removed from popcorn context, flips to lurching savagery and a childishness more violent than funny. It's not a Bill Murray-style reinvention--in retrospect, you can see the seeds planted for Sandler's revelatory performance in his previous daffy work, and his full flowering as curated by PTA is a marvel to behold.

Three: Love is a romance. A jarring, blistering take on romance, but a romance nonetheless.

I beg to differ with that last one, even though it seems the most basic of the three, the film's genre footing. I understand, it's right there in the name, and a basic rom-com arc regularly intrudes on the film's spastic id, but I don't think it can be most accurately labeled a love story. If it is, it's not an especially good one--Emily Watson is idiosyncratic and charming, but her peculiar connection to this madman doesn't exactly feel like a romance, though it looks like one.

My theory? Punch Drunk Love is a superhero movie, reduced to its most delirious and unsettling form.

Foremost among the film's many running gags is Barry's powder-blue suit, which he consistently fails to explain. The suit is its own explanation, Barry's costume, the source of his totemic individuality as marked out for the audience as much as his fellow characters. Brion's score is Barry's internal theme song, driving him not to save the city but to charge madly around his warehouse, his echoing fortress of reluctant solitude. There, he seethes with odd, quixotic obsessions (plungers and pudding), both laughable and strangely compelling from the outside. There's a waifish, adoring damsel (Watson) and a distant femme fatale (an exploitative phone-sex operator), but neither drives Barry's redemption forward. What does is a mysterious accident, which inexplicably grants him an external representation of his inner otherworldliness: a harmonium, on which he composes dissonant, resonant drones. Sounds like an origin myth to me.

In romantic terms, Barry's seven sisters are a lazy plot device, propping up the same sketched misogyny that haunted Magnolia. In a superhero tale, those seven (a fantastic number!) are something decidely more allegorical: the square society Barry can't jive with. Barry's war was cast by some observers as a loner fighting off an oppressive society that refuses to recognize his "sensitivity." Bull. He's not sensitive, he's obsessive, and that society isn't exactly oppressive--that's PTA's real twist on the superhero legacy. The world outside Barry's factory is shabby, selfish, and faintly absurd. The battle lines are nothing quantifiable. Instead, it's a question of perspective: the aesthetic comes back into play, tying us closely to Barry's feverish viewpoint while keeping his outbursts (e.g., smashing a sliding glass door) unpredictable and inexplicable. He's not cast as crazy, a locus of pity for a sane world and a sober film. He's the subject, not an object.

Sandler, of course, is perfect for this role. His crazed passion is worlds beyond the quirkily depressive antics of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker. On the one hand, he's more than a little pathetic, caught in the crossfire of a phone-sex scam and his controlling family, collecting airline miles with no independent desire to go anywhere. On the other, his madness goes hand in hand with devotion, fearlessness, and an astonishing ability to kick ass when called upon to do so. His nemesis may just be "Mattress Man" (an irreplacable Philip Seymour Hoffman, finally given his due by PTA), but Barry still triumphs over him, and tied as we are to our hero's perspective, the triumph is oddly moving rather than ironic. Consider all of Sandler's previous on-screen incarnations his hammed-up Clark Kent. This is his true alien form, unleashed to wander through appropriately abstracted sets: supermarkets and tropical islands take on the weighty but transparent qualities of the best fantasy.

In hindsight, of course, Punch Drunk Love is a transitional work, excising the frustrated ambitions of PTA's late-90s work on the way to the transcendent unity of direction and performance in There Will Be Blood. As such, Love feels hermetic, a carefully controlled experiment in which nothing so messy as love is allowed to survive. Still, it's a fascinating, successful experiment, one of the genuinely unique films of the Aughts--a dead-end trail, but one I'm glad PTA blazed.

Everybody Hurts (and hurts, and hurts...)

Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's third feature, certainly doesn't lack for ambition. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of Boogie Nights (see my last post), the director set out to "make the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie." Nights, a decades-spanning ensemble piece, had certainly represented a massive leap outward from the genre-bound Hard Eight. Magnolia, however, progresses just as far beyond Nights, from passive description to two-fisted engagement. So where to begin discussing "an epic spin on topics that don't necessarily get the epic treatment"?

The beginning is revealing. Magnolia comes with a prologue, in which an uncredited Ricky Jay describes the existential coincidences he says will dominate the film. As per PTA, the sequence is astonishingly well composed, complete with jarring sound and sharp, effective editing. It's also clinically detached, annoyingly smug, and far too enamored with its own conceits. Evidently, we couldn't possibly understand the ideas PTA is weaving together on our own, so we need him to draw a fucking ESPN arrow on the screen for us. These strengths and weaknesses are immediately apparent, but upon returning to the opening after a full viewing, something else becomes far more worrisome.

The introduction's wrong. That's not what the movie's about, not at all. Coincidences occur in Magnolia, sure, but they're background, starting points, irrelevant in themselves. Really, do we need to be convinced that convenient coincidences occur in cinema? Is this news to anyone, that we need to be eased in and reassured? Yes, frogs fall from the sky. But within the film, that Biblical downpour is received as a catalyst for the film's battered relationship arcs, not a hard-to-swallow miracle per se. Do we need to be warned, when the experience reveals all we're supposed to know? The point is that it's inexplicable; starting things off with a precise treatise on imprecise actions seems overeager and oddly counter-intuitive.

Coincidence, no matter how well-woven, carries little emotional weight, and Magnolia is all about hitting us with the heavy shit. The film's actual arena therein is communication, the lack of and the need for. Tom Cruise's absurdly misogynistic evangelism is mocked, but it's never truly condemned. If nothing else, he's encouraging his flock of macho shitheads to come clean and admit their own failures and frustrated desires. In that regard, they're well ahead of Philip Baker Hall's disintegrating game show host, who keeps his mouth clamped shut to prevent any of his horrendous secrets from spilling out. John C. Reilly's impossibly lonely cop is little better off: he describes his life philosophy to his empty passenger seat, and impatiently dismisses a young rapper who claims to have revealed a murderer's name in verse (crucially, the matter is never resolved). Cruise himself finally reaches redemption by spilling his guts at his father's deathbed in a powerfully feral scene, earning the Best Supporting Actor nod.

The closer the film hews to this theme, the stronger it is. It's a fierce, fearless polemic, light years ahead of the forced surface diagnosis in American Beauty that same year. Magnolia's occasional over-talkiness can be forgiven in light of its admirable faith in healing through honesty. Keep talking, guys, just keep talking.

The farther the film strays, as with that prologue, the more I become convinced that for all his technical skill, PTA isn't in full control of his moving parts here. In my last post, I argued that many of Boogie Nights' myriad characters and subplots felt sketched out, betraying the director's struggle to manage large ensembles. The same is true in Magnolia, perhaps best understood actor-by-actor.

William H. Macy ("Quiz Kid Donnie Smith!") is physically impressive, bringing the same flop-sweat sheen he made so memorable in Fargo, but is handed some truly wince-inducing lines: the one about love to give, the one about children and angels. These moments are not only clumsy, but also telegraphed. PTA commits the same grave error (though less reprehensibly) that Paul Haggis turned into an aesthetic in Magnolia descendant Crash: he treats a character like a mouthpiece. Philip Baker Hall's breakdown is extremely affective, and he mutters a despondent "Fuck" like nobody's business, but he's poorly paced. By the time we finally reach his abuse of his daughter (Melora Walters), his character's been so strung out that the final revelation can only ride the exhaust fumes, devoid of potency and punch.

Far worse is the fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays a saintly nurse, no complications, no history, no humanity, a plot device through and through. He's forced to earnestly proclaim some winking bilge about how the film's convoluted character circles are, in fact, just like a movie, but we should still believe them! It's a failure on par with the prologue: unbelievably condescending, and even more unbelievably unnecessary.

And then there are the characters who aren't men above 25. Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, and Jeremy Blackman, put through hell just for the sheer painful kick of it. Moore is dragged from one histronic scene to the next, ostensibly on some massive guilt trip, but is mostly just employed to be a Hysterical Woman, Guys, and yell "I sucked so many cocks" really loudly. Walters is handed a more sympathetic backstory from the Trauma Hat, but we aren't given access to it until near film's end. As such, she largely comes off one-dimensional and, again, telegraphed. Finally, Blackman is subject to the film's most head-slapping contradiction between polemic and execution. As a manipulated boy genius, Blackman has little to do but be a locus of pain and shame. When he finally protests against being treated like a "doll" (in a ridiculously stunted monologue), he could be scorning Paul Thomas Anderson as much as Philip Baker Hall, but the movie seems distressingly unaware of this hypocrisy. At its worst, Magnolia dips below Boogie Nights' shallowness to plumb depths of misogyny, tastelessness, and laziness. I'm not accusing PTA of conscious prejudice, but Magnolia is evidence that balanced, democratic ensemble work is beyond his considerable abilities, and it's unfortunate that he fell back on such easy stereotypes to fill out this cheesecake.

It's not terribly surprising that Magnolia breaks down when scrutinized at the micro level. Every thematic hammerweight begs the audience to consider the film in macro terms, where PTA's persistent craft can still shine. And shine it does: no matter how thematically dubious, Magnolia exemplifies its maker's mastery of film mechanics. Time is PTA's tool and trick. Magnolia is built from the ground up, through carefully arranged montages that stretch awkward moments over days and cover weeks of hopelessness in brief, breathtaking moments. PTA pulls at emotional threads, creating ebbs and swells and dry pools of feeling seemingly at will, while still allowing his fuckups to make their own fuckups (an autonomy largely absent from Boogie Nights). It's a perfectly composed ensemble film, the careening interactions acquiring a breathless poetry, marred only by Hoffman's aforementioned insistence that he can perceive the web. Magnolia's power, after all, is showing the audience the connections no one character can see, in grand cinematic tradition.

It's this interdependency that separates the film from its predecessor; while Boogie Nights is studded with superb set pieces, Magnolia's threads are inextricably interwoven. Its centerpiece, the "Wise Up" singalong, is the strongest example. The deeply affecting sequence is at once summary, breather, and catalyst, employing the lightest of touches to access pure moments of feeling. Magnolia excels at exhaling pure feeling, though the roots shrivel upon examination and the filmmaker's hand lurches between cluelessness and fascistic control. Ultimately, it's more a distantly admirable film than a great one, a concept-heavy and substance-light work caught between an acting showcase and an auteurist project, never attaining the best heights of either.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Porn, Home-Style

There Will Be Blood blew pretty much everybody away (screw you, Armond White), but it was a particular coup for longtime observers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, probably the most intriguing and frustrating young auteur in contemporary American cinema. His technical talent (particularly in encapsulating time in montage) far outstrips that of peers Sofia Coppola and the other Anderson fellow, but Blood is his only fully realized masterpiece. It's grand enough to house the director's always-straining ambition, yet fleet enough to prevent him from becoming bogged down by the same. Sadly, I can't quite say the same for the brace of '90s ensemble flicks with which he made his name.

Boogie Nights, PTA's rise-and-fall story of a self-styled family of pornographers, is also one of the shamefully few films to explicitly address the advent of videotape and home viewing. Video marks the most significant technological advancement in cinema since the rise of the talkies, and while PTA's 1997 film is necessarily a period piece, rather than a contemporary document like David Cronenberg's Videodrome, the younger director deserves kudos. Cronenberg, however, couched his film in his own personal tics (paranoia and body horror) and a twisted, subversive attack on the body politic he would only top much later with A History of Violence. By comparison, Boogie Nights is linear, devotional, and decidedly impersonal, gravely sketching out the downfall of porno theaters as an aesthetic tragedy. I'm not aiming for a moralist blow at PTA's subject matter (quite the opposite, as I'll get to in a moment), but I am criticizing his rote, overly respectful treatment of a complex era. It's a far cry, for example, from the generous back-and-forth of ideas on display in Singin' in the Rain. One reviewer, in the middle of naming There Will Be Blood the greatest movie of the '00s, referred to Nights and its follow-up Magnolia as PTA's ''rebel cries.'' For my part, I'd be hard pressed to name a film more dutiful.

Indeed, Boogie Nights is first and foremost a love letter to film itself, in style as well as in subject. Altman's '70s ensemble work is the clearest reference point, but PTA's striped and suited homage extends well beyond the decade it loves so well. There's that final cock-shot, cheekily lifted from Raging Bull's own capper. The Scorsese riffs don't end there. Obviously, such a quintessential story arc has any number of forebears, but Nights' uncanny similarities to Goodfellas can be traced scene by scene--the early beatdown by the biological parent, the late hat-in-hand return to the surrogate father. De Palma also haunts the production, from the multiple-perspective take on ''Dirk Diggler's'' first flick to the delirious coke deal, in which the characters act like they've memorized Scarface for that very moment.

This isn't to say that PTA hasn't learned well. More than any of his other films, Boogie Nights is a showcase for PTA's mastery of the discrete set piece. Music, montage, and a mobile camera weave together astonishingly virtuoso sequences, holding their own against the restaurant tour in Goodfellas or the 13-minute opening shot of Snake Eyes. The glory-days pool party, the aforementioned POV-heavy shoot, the Dirk/Rollergirl downfall montage, and, of course, the ''Sister Christian''/''Jesse's Girl'' coke deal, classics all. PTA demonstrates tremendous skill at leavening tension with humor and establishing films-within-films, and Nights is indeed a rebel cry in that it demonstrates that stylistic nostalgia and contemporary talent aren't necessarily in opposition.

Sadly, the arcs in between don't fare as well. PTA rushes things in between his self-contained symphonies, exposing a flimsy script and some glaringly underwritten characters. Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman suffer the most, though neither is as used and abused as they would be two years later in Magnolia. Moore's backstory is shoehorned in, nothing but forced, overly sentimental exposition. Hoffman is granted the first half of the film to show off his character chops as a deliciously awkward cameraman, but is unceremoniously dumped from the narrative as soon as he finally kisses Mark Wahlberg. It comes off like PTA felt vaguely that he needed one Gay Moment in a movie about porn, and was all too ready to move on afterward.

Boogie Nights is fragmented and inconsistent, but I would argue that those failures result from a dominant style, rather than breaks in the same. PTA can't spin out the jazzy ebbs and flows that ought to mark a delirious period piece and a stacked ensemble flick. His visual style is too cool and exacting, his approach to narrative too rigid and methodical. In his own, less twee manner, PTA's as fussy a filmmaker as his spiritual cousin Wes. While W. Anderson stuffs his static compositions with as many dog-eared personal effects as possible, PTA is a control freak with his camera, wielding it like a ruler, staking out the sober boundaries in which the scenes will be allowed to occur. His hand is always visible, which isn't itself a problem, except that the lack of autonomy and agency granted to the characters clashes badly with the story the director's trying to tell. When Boogie Nights works, it does so in bite-size chunks that beg to be skipped to and from. When it doesn't, there's no chance of tying the scene into a compelling larger tapestry. The film just falls flat, and does so with depressing frequency, living and dying by its author's commitment to the moment at hand.

Fundamentally, Boogie Nights is square. It assumes (and adopts) our discomfort and queasy excitement with the subject at hand, but largely fails to expand beyond the most prim and nostalgic of visions. One is never allowed to forget that this movie about the '70s (good!) and the '80s (bad!) was released in 1997. It's a tidied-up retrospective rather than a panorama of life as lived. Porn itself, supposedly the film's focus, quickly becomes the drunk party guest that won't leave. PTA increasingly situates his pornographers as wannabe actors, and their industry as a failed farm league. There's nothing wrong (or inaccurate, for that matter) with having Burt Reynolds dream of elevating his work to art, or Don Cheadle protest his status at the bank. Still, I can't shake the feeling that PTA is reflecting less society's dismissal of porn and pornographers than his own desire to flatten and generalize the story. The closing "family reunion" feels decidedly unearned, less a tying up of loose ends than a tacked-on bookend. I'm not saying Boogie Nights itself ought to have been porn, but it's frustrating to watch a talented filmmaker chicken out.

Skip forward two months to Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which threads warm, funny drama into a disreputable genre (blaxploitation) without showing the seams. Or skip forward a year to The Big Lebowski, a genre-bending, insanely aestheticized tribute to L.A. that never blinks once. Set next to pastiches that boldly possessed and utterly committed, Boogie Nights feels timid, anemic, and forced.

Lebowski is a revealing reference point for Nights, and not just because the Cheadle robbery scene (the film's weakest set piece) could've been ripped from any number of Coens films. Brothers Joel and Ethan are often accused of the same cold, authorial fussiness that plagues PTA here, and not without reason. In Lebowski, however, they yield control to the distinctiveness of their own creation, letting the density of their riffs take hold. Then again, they had had six films to learn how to let go while still being wildly creative. Boogie Nights was PTA's second film. His first feature, Hard Eight, didn't give him much to go on; unlike the Coens' similarly noir-themed debut Blood Simple, PTA's first was a stylistic dead end, furthering my impression that he lacks the cerebral juggling powers of a Tarantino. Given time, and distance from the demands of star-studded ensemble pictures, PTA's execution has gradually caught up with his talent. Adam Sandler was a compelling promecium swimming around the petri dish of Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood succeeded in large part because Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to be actively raging against PTA's direction, like the God that Daniel Plainview finally admits to not believing in. Boogie Nights' best moments still sparkle, but the gaps stand out like missing teeth.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Monkeys Monkeys Monkeys

La Jetée, a French short about nuclear devastation, time travel, and doomed love as told through voiceover and still photos, is one of the most piercingly beautiful movies ever made. Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's feverish full-length remake, is not. But it's still Gilliam, who really should've been the one to adapt Dune, and so Monkeys stands head and shoulders above the rest of the 3 A.M. dorm-room pantheon.

Like Gilliam's alarmingly faithful adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys is a definitive cult classic. It's batshit insane, even borderline unwatchable at times, but it's utterly distinctive and strangely compelling. The camera collides with spastic architecture at near-impossible angles, while bloodstains and spraypaint compete to define the color red against a weirdly gray world. The narrative, such as it is, quickly implodes into a gloriously Byzantine series of tunnels, through which Brad Pitt frantically gnaws like a lazy-eyed termite with Tourette's. If Twelve Monkeys is about anything, it's the personal and collective insanity wrought (upon the characters and the audience, respectively) by delirious cinematic tricks like time travel. The nods to Vertigo, another film gripped by the same psychoses that torment its characters, are well earned. The loop-closing confrontation at the airport makes for an oddly moving finale, in spite of/because of Bruce Willis' wig.

Afterward, you will feel bloated and slightly buzzed, as though you've recently devoured a heaping plateful of greasy food and are not quite halfway to regretting it. I wholeheartedly recommend.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I'm a Mean Person

I'm sure that at some point in near future, I'll have the equanimity to coherently discuss everything that went wrong with Christopher Nolan's trainwreck of a blockbuster Inception, but with my ass still numb and my eyes still stuck in "roll," all I can think of is how many similar movies I would rather have spent those 2 1/2 hours on. So, save your $10, Torrent these.

eXistenZ -- A delirious dream-within-dream-within-dream by a director (David Cronenberg) who has the good sense to cap the whole affair at 90 minutes.

Raising Cain --
An insanely fun dream-within-dream-within-dream that gleefully wrecks its own fragile coherence rather than tortuously maintaining it.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus -- An equally convoluted dreamscape, just as devoid of intelligence, emotion, and genuine philosophy, but by a director (Terry Gilliam) who still innately understands visual fantasy.

demonlover -- A surreal techno-capitalist heist with some freaking context.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-- Tortured romance and breathtaking low-fi-sci-fi interwoven properly, rather than the former awkwardly shoehorned into the latter.

Synechdoche, New York --
A megalomaniac shell game, but one whose frustrated, ambitious heart actually makes you care.

Catch Me If You Can -- An actually relevant opening flash-forward to a disoriented Leo being dragged places.

Batman Begins -- A halfway watchable Nolan-directed vehicle for Cillian Murphy's eyes and Michael Caine's accent.

Inland Empire --
A legitimately experimental work in which surrender to the moment at expense of the infrastructure is the point, rather than a frustrated capitulation.

Shutter Island --
A marginally more tolerable ludicrously extended third-act flashback about Leo, his dead wife, and their adorable moppets.

The Matrix Reloaded -- A better movie.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Family Business

Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich is still very easy to write about, should you need a grimly respectful paragraph in a pinch. This is so because of, not in spite of, Spielberg's admirable refusal to offer answers to the questions his film poses. Few things are easier to shallowly praise in art than ambiguity. Witness every purblind accolade offered up to The Hurt Locker for "not taking a side" in Iraq, for being "about the warrior, not the war." Every filmmaking decision is political, and not taking a side is certainly itself a position like any other. This is not to argue that explicitly historical and political films are lesser for not offering resolutions, but that since ducking the debate entirely is impossible, films would benefit from more open-minded explorations of ambiguity as a position.

Munich does so. Its visual and narrative arcs dutifully follow ground-rule political thriller tropes: the cold lighting, the austere European settings, the gradual moral and physical collapse of our heroic fighting team. Spielberg, of course, could out-direct the likes of Marc Forster from his deathbed, and Munich's technical craft remains a marvel. The opening sequence, covering the Olympics massacre itself, contains some of Spielberg's most stunning shots and powerful montages, primal images worthy of haunting protagonist Avner for the rest of the film. Spielberg's still got the chops to re-invigorate basic thriller DNA seemingly at will--that tumultuous phone call, that terrifying hotel explosion. These are all triumphs, but triumphs of degree, not kind, and they don't alone elevate Munich above the level of well-meaning garbage like Syriana.

As Arnaud Desplechin's most simpatico muse, Mathieu Amalric is synonymous in my mind with contemporary European (and Euro-centric) film. As such, his appearance in Munich as mysterious information dealer Louis immediately expanded my perception of the film beyond the well-worn cycles of 20th-century violence. Sure enough, Amalric's character is something deeper than a Bond-ready Frenchie plot device. As Avner's vengeance squad grows suspicious of Louis' motives and begins to act contrary to his instructions, Avner is forcibly introduced to Louis' world, and it's there that Munich truly attains masterpiece status.

Avner is blindfolded and driven away, and when he opens his eyes again, the visual and emotional infrastructure of the film has vanished. Gone is that shadowy, faceless urban architecture. Here instead is an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly French) countryside home. Gone are the moment-to-moment peril and underlying moral confusion and decay. Instead, we see contentment, earned safety, and family. Amalric immediately looks more at home, and it's not just because his character lives here. We're on modern European film turf: a lovely dinner outdoors and a philosophical stroll in the garden, scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Assayas' Summer Hours or the recent I Am Love were it not for the preceding tension, violence, and hate.

Again, Spielberg isn't exactly inventing archetypes here. The modern European as both politically involved and blissfully apolitical is a sturdy enough trope (and is therefore easily spoofed: "we believe in nozzing, Lebowski.") But in the context of the furious flurries of action and the even more furious ideological debates that mark the rest of the film, this calm, lovely oasis takes on greater weight. The relentless moral quandaries that mark Munich's central conflicts are enough to make even the keenest observers throw up their hands and fall back on well-informed neutrality. According to many of Munich's supporters and detractors alike, that's exactly what Spielberg did in this film. I don't disagree, but I do believe the sudden aesthetic leap to the "farm and family" scenes represents a glimpse behind the curtain, revealing Spielberg's true focus.

Family, of course, carries totemic power in Spielberg films, whether employed to warm hearts (E.T.) or chill them (A.I.) Avner spends most of Munich apart from his wife and young child, and Spielberg never devotes much time to building bonds of brotherly friendship among Avner's team. Louis' family represents the only functional family unit in the film. And how do they stay alive, how do they preserve their all-too-idyllic country retreat? By wielding that careful, studied neutrality, expertly manipulating political wills while using that power to maintain a safe distance from the explosive consequences. It's this balance--and perhaps only this balance--that allows one to engage with the struggles of one's time without taking a firm side, which would endanger not only one's political honesty, but also the survival of one's family.

Steven Spielberg isn't Michael Haneke, and while Munich's director unabashedly exposes the eyes-wide-shut mentality behind political neutrality, he doesn't condemn his characters--or his audience--for it. How could he, when he shares it himself? Still, he isn't as willing as Louis and Co. to hide from the fallout. I'm not referring to that closing shot of the WTC towers, as resonant (and earned) as it is. Spielberg proves himself an able and erudite political filmmaker throughout Munich, but it's in two moments of the personal and familial that he grounds the legacy of the film's deliberate confusion.

Just as the movie's thriller arc really gets cooking, speeding us along from one artfully constructed assassination to the next, Spielberg stops the film dead for Avner to gaze into a shop window. He sees a model kitchen, glowing with a welcoming but unearthly sheen, perfect but empty. In Avner's reflected eyes, we see both his desperate love for his family and his longing for a collective, safe homeland for his people. And then, Louis appears in the reflection behind him, and the heavenly image is blurred; this is what it means to be both a soldier and a family man, this is what it takes to secure a safe place of your own.

Eventually, of course, Avner returns to his family. His reunion with his wife is the film's (literal) climax, lending that final meeting in New York a fitting listlessness. The couple screws, making their next baby, but Spielberg's camera is drawn back in to Avner's tortured mind's eye. Avner finally (ahem) consummates the fantasies of the Munich massacre he's been toying with the whole film, but his simultaneous identification with the killers and the victims offers him no real release, and it's only that confusion, those personal and political conflations, that he can pass on to the next generation.

Is it any wonder that the only idea worth toying with in the otherwise useless Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was Indy's place in a grounded family? It's there, amidst potential banality and sentimentality, that Spielberg unleashes his strongest ideas. National identity and historical terrorism are an appropriately fraught backdrop, but Spielberg knows where to let the real weight of being "ideologically promiscuous" settle: around the dinner table, and in the marriage bed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dream Factory

I saw Toy Story in theaters, and it was the first milestone moviegoing experience of my life. Six years later, my father gratefully received a DVD of Toy Story 2 for his 41st birthday.

Seven films, a Best Picture nomination, and several trillion toy sales later, Pixar’s ability to effortlessly (and profitably) straddle generation gaps is a universally recognized phenomenon, and the studio returns now to its flagship series as the proudest of prodigal sons.

So, naturally, I found my way to a Regal Cinema and invested ten more bucks in my lifetime with the movies. After an admirably brief title shot, the film launches us immediately into a fantasy within its fantasy: a Wild West chase, with Woody and Buzz as our heroes. The artifice is out in the open. The Potatoheads have stage names, Slinky can generate a force field, Ham has an awesome super-fortress-blimp.

Of course, at the climactic moment, the movie pulls us back to kid’s hands tossing limp toys in the air, exploding cardboard ships, and bouncing imaginary lasers around the bedroom. It’s familiar ground for Toy Story, but our perspective is altered. In the opening of the first film, we stayed firmly in reality, watching the stone-faced toys surrounded by cardboard boxes while Andy served as narrator. It was pure childhood turf, the revelation that the toys can indeed talk serving as sweet wish fulfillment. Toy Story 2 left us slightly adrift at first, in a fully inhabited playground for Buzz. He dashes through a hellish labyrinth to confront his nemesis…who promptly kills him. The movie pulls back to Rex playing the sequence in a videogame; it’s Pixar’s cheeky interrogation of its own success. The toys have grown so monolithic as to be able to play with themselves. (Oh, shut up.)

Toy Story 3 seems at first to be working in similar territory, but old fans may notice that something else is pricklingly familiar. A forcefield attack dog! Well, I’ve got my dinosaur, who eats forcefield dogs! The hyper-stylized, larger-than-life fantasies of 3 are, in fact, the exact events (right down to the dialogue) sketched out in imagination in the first movie, when all we saw was Andy shaking the toys around and trying out a few accents. Here, Pixar is fully aware of their own power to turn those childhood dreams into movie magic, showing more delight, wonder, and loving self-critique than a thousand Dreamworks vehicles. Yet notice that Rex actually is gigantic and scary in this oh-so-brief headspace, and that Buzz’s laser is finally, gloriously, actually a laser. Whose fantasy are we seeing here? Andy’s? The toys’? It’s both: the kid and the toys desperately need each other to escape their respective confines. What better place than the cinema to unleash those dreams?

There’s a third fantasy at work here: this time, when we pull back, it’s not to “reality,” but to another movie, a home video of young Andy immersed in his toys. His mother is recording her son’s brief, sweet childhood. That’s the final arm of Pixar’s power, inherited from Disney, literalized: appealing not only to kids, but also to parents trying themselves to appeal to their kids. Mutually created dreams--such is the work of Toy Story.

Yet all is no longer well in this dreamworld. After the opening sequence ends with a sudden cut to black, we shift gears to a heist, in grand Toy Story transition. Our heroes use their cute-awesome toy powers to the fullest, in order to…make a call on one cell phone, to another inches away. Andy appears, having aged along with us, and retrieves his phone from a trunk of toys he clearly hasn’t opened in years. He closes it again and stomps away. Something is off. The adorably serious toy world, in which Andy is usually treated like the boss of a bunch of toy co-workers, has been upended to reveal its essential fragility. Has there been any more potent image in cinema so far this year than a toy pressed against a cell phone, listening to the boy man he loves on the other end, unable to say anything lest he break a spell that’s already long dead anyway?

Thus Toy Story 3 sets its foundation: ruthless exposure of what it means that the characters are toys. The giddiness and fun of the previous installments was always briefly punctured by the sight of the toys suddenly falling limp on the approach of a human, ingeniously animated expressions reverting to frozen smiles. It’s the troubling side to Pixar’s fantasy, that what seems real and humane is subsumed when we giant, stomping humans come to play. The “human” analogue that comes quickest to mind is Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Osment’s Uncanny Valley features made him both endearingly pathetic and unbearably strange, upsetting the whole notion of cuteness as an end in itself that grounds kids’ animated films.

As with Osment’s “David”, the toys’ worshipful love for their owners crosses the line from cute to upsetting in 3: witness Rex’s desperate lunge for the daycare doors, begging to be played with, unaware of the havoc to come. Fantasies become twisted when you leave them alone—that’s an idea that’s underpinned many a psych-thriller and revenge fantasy in its time, but it’s most effective here, employed by a movie machine built on keeping us engaged in our make-believe. Also like David, the toys become less relatable as we realize how unfettered they are to that most human condition, death. Even more disorienting than college-bound Andy is his dog Buster, so instantly loveable as a puppy in 2, here reintroduced as a creaky old hound nearing his last waddle. Woody, struggling to revive the dog’s fighting spirit, has stayed exactly the same.

The toys’ own peculiar kind of aging is best understood through the film’s biggest change to the cast, the inevitable pairing up of Ken and Barbie. There’s a whole bunch of random new toys in the Sunnyside Daycare eager to abuse our heroes, but it’s Ken’s sneering domination that cuts deepest. Here are Ken and Barbie, decades old, considered hopelessly dated and often offensive by millions. Yet they’re still enough a part of our cultural memory to be introduced without explanation, to have specific attributes so well known (dream houses, ascots) as to be easily spoofed, and to walk us through their own internal power reversal. Watch Ken hold onto his favored place in kids’ fantasies by keeping the new toys imprisoned. What will we be mocking and adoring in 2050? Will Woody and Jessie ever make it to that museum in Tokyo (“that’s in Japan”)? The first two Toy movies dealt with this stylistic aging, but in terms of human transitions: the cowboy v. space age metaphor. Here, it’s more open-ended. This is one toy phenomenon, “Ken and Barbie,” whose hold on our make-believe has stayed strong. Pixar’s on top of the world now, but they’re clearly troubled about how much of an impact they’ve really made.

Examples abound. For one paralyzing second in the Sunnyside bathroom, we think a janitor’s seen Woody move. The first two movies’ most suspenseful moments came from the threat of discovery; the toys used that potential to their advantage in the first film, but it could represent the end of the world here. But it was just a smudge on the mirror, of course; the fantasy persists, down to what we see and don’t see. Bo Peep, Woody’s luv interest in the first two installments, is nowhere to be found, her absence noted early on with all the brief gravity common to offscreen film deaths. But her fate isn’t death, as Woody says: she’s been moved to a different family. Why worry about these toys at all, when there’s so many like them? Swap ‘em, lose ‘em, move ‘em around: they’re endlessly replaceable, just like the glut of mediocre animated spazz-flicks whose previews were launched into my face before I got to see 3. Of course, Pixar also works out these ideas at a lighter level, emphasizing the freaky toy-ness of the Potatoheads. The missus can see through her eyes even when they’re not in her (a tantalizing spy-movie gambit if there ever was one), while her husband entrusts his body parts to a tortilla in perhaps Pixar’s most utterly bizarre sequence to date. These aren’t just kooky characters that are stand-ins for human archetypes--these are toys, and that’s weird. Pixar certainly isn’t above marking itself out as the latest in a long line of upstart mythmakers: notice the Totoro among Bonnie’s flock of thespian toys.

My Neighbor Totoro was my number one childhood movie, and it’s only gotten more delightful as I’ve returned to it over the years. The best Studio Ghibli films have a dreamy, wandering spirit like nothing else I’ve ever seen. They feel like they were actually made by kids: the sprawling, decentralized pace, the willingness to get lost in subplots, the exquisite back-and-forths of wonder and terror. The likes of Totoro and Spirited Away are some of most meaningful memory machines to ever come out of an art form that specializes in irresistible nostalgia.

Interestingly, after the debacle that was Cars, Pixar’s been moving in the exact opposite direction, producing films openly indebted to serious “adult” filmmaking. Ratatouille’s glowing cinematography moves well beyond the accepted color-saturation and spastic architecture of kid’s-film universes to create a hauntingly gorgeous cityscape, more reminiscent of the Paris of Breathless and Charade than any animated precedent. Wall-E’s opening shots earned every bit of praise, undercutting its hero’s Chaplin antics by sinking him in zoom-outs and dragging him through long takes of decay and destruction. Last and best is Up’s marriage montage: its impossibly fluid evocation of comfort, glee, risk, familiarity, trauma, and loss qualifies it as one of the finest pieces of humanist cinema in recent years, and maybe ever. Of course, all three have their glaring faults. Ratatouille’s human characters lack any investment or charm, making the film an exercise in delighted but detached stargazing. Wall-E’s second half, a stunningly clumsy and slapdash affair, nearly wrecks the gains made by its beginning. Up never really loses track of its battered, beating heart, and as such is the best of the three, but it still begins to go downhill as soon as it mires itself in rote chase scenes involving a giant bird ripped straight from old episodes of Looney Tunes. But such are the sacrifices made when you want to sell toys, and Pixar got so huge so fast that I’ve always had the nagging feeling that its movers never had time to figure out what the rules were. Certainly the fat-people satire in Wall-E smacks of laziness, or, more charitably, creative desperation. There were a lot of expectations building up behind Wall-E, and even more behind its follow-up Up: Pixar, Disney’s reluctant heir, has had to carry the future of animated film after Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nod, and it’s a heavy burden.

There’s still a lot at stake in Toy Story 3, but it’s of a very different kind. Pixar has come through the fire (mostly) unscathed, able to translate its sacred cows to every marketable opportunity possible and still get good reviews. Not since Spielberg released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within six months of each other has a filmmaking institution conquered this much territory.

Toy Story 3, then, could not have come at a more appropriate time. This franchise represents the only slip in the curtain Disney’s ever allowed, the only self-aware glance at the monopoly on fantasies enjoyed by an animated empire now past its 80th birthday. And it ain’t just because those are literal, bought-and-sold toys on screen, though that’s a big part of it. It’s because these three movies openly display the workings and complexities of externally aided fantasies, and they increasingly show it from both sides: the dreamer and the dreamed-of. The traditional ideal with kid’s movies is a relationship that changes and deepens as the audience ages, allowing a viewer to use her/his favorite VHS (etc.) as, again, a memory machine, filtering childhood through a fiction more memorable than most real days. Of course, given Pixar’s pace and general chicness, the Pixar Generation (in which I proudly include myself) doesn’t even have to look back. The old ones appeal for much the same reasons they did the first time, and we get new ones like clockwork. It’s this phenomenon, which I would argue is unique to Pixar, which makes Toy Story 3 so crucial.

Because it’s been eleven years since Toy Story 2, and that opening montage of Andy playing with his toys—that’s us now. This is the power Pixar has, and the studio is generous enough to reveal it to us: it helped build not only our childhoods, but also our lifelong memories of those childhoods, and this movie is here to remind us of the fantasies we’ve shared. They’re beautiful fantasies, but they’re fantasies, but they’re beautiful.

And that’s what Toy Story 3 is all about. It’s there in that breathtakingly perfect moment when Andy’s mom just stops short and looks at his empty room, all items of significance removed. It’s just a room now; Andy’s little sister gets it next, begging him to leave behind some of his neat things. They’re just toys, the endlessly reproducible family, Disney’s dream product. You can always get a new huggable bear, and next summer will always bring new shiny animated movies. But, again, A.I. becomes the reference point: through adventure and growth, the fungible copies become individuals, unique, worthy of love. These individuals can also be given new life, new fantasies to roam in, to infinity and beyond. Witness that brilliant penultimate scene, in which Andy acts out each toy’s personality to their new owner Bonnie. Like Lotso the bear says, just as there will always be more toys, so too will there always be more kids to play with those toys (after their parents buy them). But you can almost see Andy reviving his old toys, charging them up with that same fantastic wonder, even as they (importantly) remain unmoving in his hands. The fact that he gives them freely to Bonnie, just as his mom donated them to Sunnyside, is a beautiful argument for artistic generosity coming from the star-child of the world’s least generous dream factory. Fantasies don’t always have to be bought and sold.

Yet Pixar isn’t re-delving into the (hypocritical) critiques of capitalism that dragged Wall-E down. Instead, the studio takes the opportunity of this return to its origins to ask what happens when fantasies age. Disney’s built an empire on being able to constantly revive the old dreams, from theme park rides to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, a naked bid for commercial relevancy on par with Space Jam. Yet none of the tricks in the old wizard’s hat can match the sight of a family of toys holding tight to each other as they descend towards the eternal flame, wondering if they’ll come out the other side.