Sunday, May 25, 2014

Movies with high demands

The cowboy life Flanders-style
"When I go to the movies, I don't want to think.  I just want to be taken out of myself," I hear.   And I think there will be many, many years to not think when you're dead.  Mindless entertainment makes me restless and bored, and too much of it physically nauseates me, especially since it's often built on lies.  Shoot me, but I like a movie or a play to actually be about something more than bringing me 100 minutes closer to my death.

Broken Circle Breakdown (2013-USA) is a tough and a tough-minded movie.  At first sight, it is exhiliaratingly free-sprited and wild, about the careless romance between a sometime phlegmatic Flemish bluegrass musician (he and his pals sing in perfect American English) and a whilring dervish of a tattoo artist, a romance interrupted by pregnancy.  That pregnancy brings joy, then heartache, all reflected through the music in a way that recalls the Irish film Once more than the structure a conventional stage musical.  Tough as that all becomes, the film then ventures into darker areas than you ever thought -- not pessimism or morbidity, but the absolute truth about the way married people can talk to each other and the stupid unthought things they can say.  And the pain that becomes more poignant as there is little or no time to take back the words.

This clip gives you some small sense of how the music plays with and against the image and just how good Belgians can be singing country music.  (Well, Flemish people anyway-- I'm prejudiced, as the Lockharts purportedly emigrated from Flanders to Scotland...)  By the way, the end of this clip is by no means the hardest part of this movie.

But if you like to be challenged, if you appreciate the echo of real life instead of the recycled BS of our commercial myth-machines, you will like this film.  Downer as it is -- and I wept through the last four minutes of the film -- I felt better for having seen it.

One side note:  the most unbelievable thing about this movie is that it has been adapted from a play by the playwright and the film's director.  I cannot see the fingerprints of theater anywhere in this movie-- not in the scenes, the language, the structure, the performances, the music, nothing.  I've never seen the whiff of the footlights so thoroughly eradicated in any other such adaptation.

So often actors think that good acting is theater acting.  Meryl Streep, formerly a fine artist, is spiralling down into a maelstrom of twitches, sniffs, shrugs and counter-intuitive line readings, trying desperately to help the poor crippled script across the street, when in fact plays like DOUBT and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY need no such help, and in fact are marred by Streep's determined eccentricity.

Irene still remembers she loves Craig
She could take a lesson from the clear-eyed, economical and completely true performance of James Cromwell in Still Mine (2012), a film that is Canadian not only in terms of financial resources, but has the kind of unpretentiousness, directness and plain common sense one associates with Canadians.

Based on a true story, it tells of a farmer in his 80s who sees his wife sinking into dementia or worse and decides a smaller, more manageable house for them to live on, on his own property, using wood from timber he owns himself.  The "A story" as they say in television is about Craig's legal battle to build his house his own way, despite laws and regulations designed to protect the unknowing from the unscrupulous, but in this case, barring a man from living his life his own way on his own land on his own terms.  But that A-story is driven by the B-story, the fierce cleaving-together of this unsentimental, but very-much-in-love couple as she drifts away from him.  Fans of independent film might be reminded of Away From Her or the more light-hearted The Castle.  But this film has a clear-sky clarity like the New Brunswick skies it was shot under.

And at the heart of that clarity is the model performance of James Cromwell, playing his first leading role in his early 70s.  Never once do you catch him "acting."  There is no big speech, no big moment in this movie; just a lot of real true human behavior (something you could also say about Broken Circle Breakdown).

Cromwell reminds me of Spencer Tracy here, and his acting is, if anything, even more invisible.  It doesn't get fake-folksy, nor fake-eloquent, but treads that narrow in-between ground of smart but not over-educated people talking about what they truly know.  When Cromwell as Craig Morrison tells what his father, a shipwright, taught him about wood and about building --well, he never uses the word "spiritual" or "soul" but there is a profound, mystical religious quality about Craig's faith in what he has learned and what he can do that links him both to the earth and to the dozens of generations before him.  It is a master class.

There's nothing wrong with stupid movies in their place and time.  But you can't live on marshmallow, and if you'd like some good strong fibre of human life in your movie diet, check out these films.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Silent film lives

This might be wishful thinking, but I think I am detecting a mini-trend in films that eschew dialogue, at least as a means of conveying narrative information.  Even in some fairly talky films, what seems to be important is who is talking to each other and why, not whatever it is they're saying.

I'm not talking about the obvious examples such as The Artist or Biancaneves, which aspire to an earlier form in a self-conscious way, but the stripping away of dialogue in order to arrive at deeper narrative revelation that words can cover up.

Exhibit A:  Blue Caprice (2013), an abstract fictionalization of the 2002 Beltway sniper incident.  Although there is a soundtrack, it is one of the most profoundly silent movies made in the last few years, both literally and metaphysically.  It seems to have infuriated many of the critics that the film offers no explanation or motive for the violence this would-be father-and-son team inflicted.  But really, what explanation would be possible?  The point of it WAS motiveless crime.  It's even sketched out by John Muhammed (played by Isaiah Washington) in those very words.  What makes the crimes insoluble is their sheer motivelessness, their lack of connection and lack of predictability.  Go ahead -- you explain that.  Irrationality is the heart and soul of the act.  So the film is built on a spiritual silence as to what these acts mean or what their purpose is, a silence it never ever breaks.

C'mon kids, artists are not here to explain.  They are here to observe, to re-interpret and re-present the world back to us.  Judgments are for the audience, not for the artist.  You want an explanation for terrible violence? Check out the psychiatrist scene in Pyscho.  Boring.  Meaningless.  Just there to give everyone a chance to calm down from all the screaming before they leave the theater.  Explanations don't belong in movies.

But there are even more profound and localized silences around the deaths in Blue Caprice.  The first on-screen shooting incorporates a visual misdirection and an audio clue that the shooting has begun.  As one victim passes into oblivion, an oblivious shopper goes by with her cart.  The placid surface of the carpet-like grass disturbed by the incongruity of a snowblower.  The rampage is represented by the sounds of police calls playing asyncronously against shots of police cruisers and pictres of crime scenes.  The arrest itself is literally silent as far as the film is concerned, since it takes place offscreen.  And once that arrest happens, Muhammed disappears utterly (and silently) from the film, and his "son" Richmond's only utterances are to confirm his intention to maintain his silence.

Critics seemed to get downright angry about this film.  Why wouldn't it explain the roots of gun violence, they said?  What is it avoiding?  But the film is not about gun violence -- it's about psychological violence.  The child abuse of a man who picks up a drifting boy and turns him into an emotionless killing machine, seeking only the "father's" approval for a well-aimed shot.  Sorry -- no socio-economic, legal, policy explanations behind this tale, just complementary illnesses.  The film portrays the very lack of affect that makes such crime possible -- which is its strength and the very reason the professional opinionators and verbalizers are uncomfortable with it.

Such chilliness would have been anathema to Hitchcock, who I suspect would have loved All Is Lost (2013), given all its very deliberate limitations.  For one thing, Redford's virtually wordless turn is the kind of eloquent, expressive performance that places him alongside Hitchcock favorite James Stewart, as well as Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood (the latter two nearly always better when they're not talking.)

Paradoxically, the film was built as an explanation for a brief letter that writer-director J.C. Chandor wrote in the earliest stages of creation.  It was an apology and a confession.  As he read it, Chandor realized that this imaginary farewell was built on the unspoken question, "How long is hope reasonable?"  Here is the text:
13th of July, 4:50 pm. I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here... except for soul and body... that is, what's left of them... and a half-day's ration. It's inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I'm not sure... but it did. I fought 'til the end, I'm not sure what this worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all... I will miss you. I'm sorry.
Other than the sentence in the middle about "soul and body" and "a half-day's ration" nothing in this sentence calls for a story about a man lost and alone at sea.  Which is what makes the nit-picking about the safety details of this film so ridiculous.  (So what if the man had had an "EPIRB."  Then he either gets rescued or the EPIRB is somehow made non-functional.  Narratively or emotionally speaking, what has been added by attending to such a detail?)  It is a real boat and not a real boat.  It is the Indian Ocean and not the Indian Ocean.  Our Man is a real man or not.  They are both at once.  It doesn't matter.  This is a metaphysical journey from hope to reality and the necessity of letting go.  The subject itself is profoundly silent -- it lives at the core of the soul and not subject to debate or persuasion.  It is a feeling question, and therefore perfectly suited to film.

It is about accepting failure.  It is one of the most painful movies ever made.

It is wordless but not at all silent.  Wind, water, the creaks of the boat, some expletives.  But mostly wind and water.  And pictures of a man thinking.  He thinks deliberately.  He moves slowly, with purpose. No panic.  No false hope.  Reasonableness.  Reasonableness defeated.

Two "silent" films -- one cold, the other cool, both warming themselves at the glowing hearth of the origin of film -- pictures in motion, without the intervention of theatrical chatter.  "Look at this" says Film.  Don't measure it, don't judge it.  At least not yet.  Just look, then look closer.  Only see.

What did you want?  A speech?