Friday, September 12, 2014
I kept hearing and reading about this Ben Wheatley character without ever seeing anything he'd made, but he sounded up my alley. Guess what? He is. A Field in England is a gorgeous, funny, creepy, and concise black-and-white psychedelic dark comedy rural British occult horror period piece set in the English Civil War about an alchemist's assistant who makes a break for the peaceful side of a shrubbery-obscured field during a battle and runs into a small group of fellow deserters in search of an ale house. They encounter a creepy fellow who has been accused of stealing some of the alchemist's things, and many strange events ensue. Wheatley's film is occasionally confusing, especially if you lack a working knowledge of mid-17th century British history, and a few scenes seem stalled in wheel-spinning limbo, but on the whole, this is a thoughtfully composed, atmospheric, hypnotic, nutzoid spirit-of-midnight-movie movie that made me happy and pleasantly disturbed. I've since checked out Wheatley's first film, Down Terrace, which has been described as Mike Leigh meets The Sopranos. For once, the you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter descriptor didn't add up to zero, and I'm a full-blown Wheatley fan now.
My Anderson-hating friends should probably skip this paragraph and take the scenic route to the next one, since this is Wes Anderson at his Wes Anderson-iest, which is mostly alright with me. The Stefan Zweig-inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel combines the doll's house miniature feel of his last two films, Moonrise Kingdom and the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox, with the grand scale backdrop of his largest, most elaborate films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited (my two least favorite Anderson films) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (possibly my favorite). The storybook fable feel is strong here, with a fictional composite old-Europe setting and a reverse Russian doll structure of small story giving way to slightly larger story giving way to larger story giving way to largest story and back again, each one filmed in a different aspect ratio. Almost everyone who has ever been in a Wes Anderson film is here, and each frame is as gorgeous and insanely meticulous as ever (or as fussy, overly perfectionist, and airless as ever, depending on your taste). Making his first appearance in an Anderson film, Ralph Fiennes innately understands the highly specific Anderson tone in his leading role as uber-concierge Gustave H. I can't recall ever seeing Fiennes in a comedic role before, but he's the highlight of a film that includes such favorites of mine as Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, and Bob Balaban. I liked the old children's storybook feel and found most of the jokes funny, especially the bit about the switched paintings, but I was unexpectedly touched by Fiennes' performance. He plays the guy straight, never telegraphing the humor or the pathos, and I felt an empathy, warmth, and sadness for him without feeling like Anderson had manipulated or exploited my emotions. I know I like this film, but I'm still not entirely sure where to place it. Anderson's films usually improve on repeat viewings, but I do miss the elements of lived experience that make his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, outliers in his filmography. Those two movies are about guys stuck in this world who desperately want to live in a Wes Anderson film, and the removal of that tension in the subsequent films is something I miss, though much has also been gained. I'm not entirely sure why I like Anderson's films so much, but I do. His almost claustrophobic perfectionism gives me little to no space to engage with the films actively. Instead, I admire them through a thick pane of glass. I should hate that feeling, and I usually do, but his work generally fills me with happiness. Maybe Anderson is my Steely Dan of film. I love that band in all its distanced, meticulous perfectionism and detached humor even though the bulk of my musical taste tends toward the raw, wild, emotional, and/or spare.
(J. Hoberman tackles another interesting problem about the film I don't feel qualified to spout off about in an essay for Tablet, linked here.)
One of the perks of being a movie fanatic in Austin, Texas is Richard Linklater's support of the local film scene in all its iterations. He co-founded the Austin Film Society in the 1980s, but due to his busy career as a film director, his contributions in recent years have been largely financial, though I've seen him in the audience at the occasional screening. Fortunately, he found the time recently to program, introduce, and conduct Q&As afterward for a lengthy series of his favorite 1980s films. The lineup was so great, I'll just list it all here:
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)
White Dog (Sam Fuller)
Reds (Warren Beatty)
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
Star 80 (Bob Fosse)
Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen)
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer)
Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)
Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper)
Godard is one of the hardest filmmakers to write about because his films are so uniquely personal, difficult to describe, densely packed with images, sounds, words, and ideas, open to misreading, and resistant to categorization that an honest reckoning with any of them involves much flailing, inelegance, and the literary equivalent of falling backwards onto one's ass. His name has also become a contradictory Tower of Babel brand and symbol for various critics' ideas of film, and too many people write about Godard films with preconceived philosophies and closed-minded axes to grind or deity worship rubber-stamping. His post-1968 films, in particular, often enrage lazy viewers and critics who fell in love with the vibrant surfaces of the hipper, youthful, more stylish 1960s films and feel betrayed by Godard's insistence on moving forward, even as they ignore the formal similarities and shared humor and structure of the flashier, pop-culture-obsessed early stuff they like and the later work that drives them nuts. Godard's films are closer to the experience of thinking, seeing, and listening in real time than any others I can recall, rough drafts constantly in revision, non-linear narratives that aren't fragmented shards but wholly intact separate cells in the organism of the film. See? I'm getting a little silly trying to describe what he's doing. It's hard.
Every Man for Himself was Godard's 1980 return to 35mm film after a long period of shooting on videotape (1975's Numero deux is my favorite of this period) and his first film to get decent distribution since the commercial suicide of his membership in the Maoist filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group (complete with the renunciation of his previous films) in 1968. The group dissolved in 1972, and Godard made a few films with Anne-Marie Mieville that were critical of his own involvement in the group and the work he made while he was a member. In Every Man for Himself, Godard continues that self-critique, this time sending up and confronting the misogyny in his earlier films, particularly the fantasized glamorization of prostitution, and connecting that relatively benign youthful ignorance with its darker institutionalized manifestations in television and filmmaking, business, French society, the couple, and the family. Every Man for Himself does this while managing to be very funny, compositionally arresting (Godard never shoots something just to move the narrative along, every shot has a visual reason to exist), innovative in structure and sound design, digressive and abstract, and about lots of other things besides. The lead male character, a documentary filmmaker for public television (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), is interestingly named after Godard's father, but his primary function in the film is to provide the connective tissue between the women who carry each half of the film, played by two of the best actresses in France, or anywhere else (Nathalie Baye and Isabelle Huppert). Baye plays an editor working on Dutronc's television shows who has an on-again, off-again relationship with him, while Huppert is a prostitute with a wealthy clientele. They're pretty close to perfect here. Godard is surprisingly well-represented on DVD and video in the U.S., but this film isn't. If you feel about Godard the way I do and ever get a chance to see this one, do it.
Lars Von Trier's latest was broken into two parts and released separately, but I tend to agree with the aforementioned J. Hoberman that the halves belong together and that the separation was a commercial decision that doesn't serve the film very well. At least I saw both halves just days apart, though I'm still debating myself on my opinion, months later. Before I get on with it, I see that the old "Von Trier is a misogynist" routine is being trotted out again. I continue to be baffled by that allegation, even though lots of distinctive male filmmakers who regularly feature women in central roles are accused of being misogynists, including, bizarrely, John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There's something suspicious about these accusations. Why are the men who regularly write and cast multifaceted, meaty, demanding roles for women singled out as woman-haters or guys with creepy issues while the parade of directors and screenwriters who write and cast women only as supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead or nagging, non-supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead never get called out on their flagrant, repetitive misogyny? I wish all the people who call Von Trier a misogynist would go after Oliver Stone instead. Critics accuse Von Trier of torturing his female leads. Have you seen any comedy or drama in your lives? Terrible things almost always happen to the leads, who usually happen to be men. Most stories are about things going drastically wrong for the main character. There's a paternalistic women-must-be-protected vibe to the criticism that bugs me. But maybe there's something I'm not seeing. I am a man with a lot of invisible privilege. Maybe it's there and I'm missing it. On the other hand, my wife and my mother and many women film writers love Von Trier's movies. Maybe too many people can't tell the difference between the characters and the author.
I suspect the real source of discomfort with Von Trier is his pessimistic worldview, one he shares with major influence Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Von Trier is a depressed man who identifies most strongly with his female characters and who sees the world as a cruel, abusive hole where most interactions are sadistic power struggles or empty gestures required by inherited social rules. The most uplifting moment in his previous film was the destruction of the entire world. (Oh crap. Why do I relate so much to both men's films?) Again like Fassbinder, he expresses this view in tragic dramas, comedic farces, and odd combinations of the two, not to mention his antagonistic prankster relationship with the press. After the stylistic exercises and formal experiments of his earliest work, Von Trier's protagonists starting with Breaking the Waves were goodhearted people hanging onto their faith and optimism in the face of almost total darkness and sacrificing everything for a loved one. Dogville ushered in a phase of films where the openhearted protagonist became hard and cruel after suffering cruelty from others, while his self-described depression trilogy of Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac sees his lead characters already dispossessed of their optimism and faith before the events in the stories begin. (I may revisit this opinion later. I'm worried it may be a little half-baked and ignores some of the stranger outliers.)
Nymphomaniac is Von Trier's most self-referential work, structured as a conversation between strangers. Those strangers are Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman is an autodidact intellectual who finds Joe beaten and unconscious in the alley on his way home from shopping. He helps her up, acquiesces to her request not to inform the police or call an ambulance, and takes her back to his small apartment to nurse her back to health. He asks her some questions about herself, and she tells him her life story. The film is broken into chapters, each one with a different tone and style that calls to mind the styles of his previous films, with each chapter bookended by more of Joe and Seligman's contentious but polite conversation. Seligman regularly interrupts to offer his take on Joe's experiences, while she just as often critiques and disagrees with his interpretations. I couldn't help but read the film as Von Trier's defense/critique of his own work with Gainsbourg as his surrogate and Skarsgard as his critics and the press. The deliberately artificial structure fits the schematic narrative well, and Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are two of Von Trier's most gifted interpreters. Stacey Martin (in her first role), Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, and Udo Kier also do a tremendous job, though Christian Slater's English accent is unconvincing and Shia LaBeouf wears out his welcome. The film is honest and sharp about addiction, funny at times, compelling, frustrating, exciting, and uncomfortable. I haven't decided whether the ending is inevitable or a childish prank, and I'm not yet entirely sure how I feel about the film as a whole, though I'm waiting for the November DVD that restores the 90 minutes Von Trier's distributors made him cut to decide. One thing I am sure about is that Charlotte Gainsbourg has an incredible screen presence that is both intense and weightless, and her and Von Trier have a good thing going.
Larry Brown was a great Southern writer who died way too early in 2004 at the age of 53. He was a great writer, period, but I mention "Southern" because he was a Southerner who wrote beautifully about the South. I wish he could have seen David Gordon Green's lyrical adaptation of his novel Joe, my favorite Brown book. I also wish homeless Austin man Gary Poulter, who played Wade, had lived long enough to see his sole acting role on the big screen. Poulter drowned in Lady Bird Lake after the filming of Joe, but before its release, and he put something scary and true on film that couldn't have come from an actor. You're looking at life up there. Joe is a return to the dark, offbeat Southern dramas David Gordon Green made before his recent stretch directing comedies, and it's his best in a long time, though I'll stick up for those comedies, too. Joe also sees a rare layered, subtle performance from Nicolas Cage, who's spent most of the last several years operating in just two modes: 1) catatonic emotionlessness, and 2) mother of all freakouts. I absolutely enjoy a crazy, yelling Nicolas Cage, but that would not have been suitable here. If you were to tell me when I was reading Joe that Nicolas Cage would be playing the title character in the movie, I would have said, "Oh, hell, no. That is a bad idea." It's nice to be wrong. Cage is really good here, and not enough people are checking it out.
Green accomplishes the rare feat of capturing Brown's voice and staying relatively true to the novel while also reflecting his own oddball sensibility and style. A Southerner himself, Green gets the strangeness and menace and humor while avoiding the condescension, grotesquerie, heavy-handed Southern Gothic tropes, and romanticization of Hollywood and East Coast interpretations of the South, even with the outskirts of Austin, Texas having to stand in for rural Mississippi. Green populates the film with professional Hollywood actors, local actors, nonprofessionals from other fields, and homeless men, creating a unique texture where craft and experience rub up against instinct and newness. This film is so rich with character, atmosphere, detail, and dialogue. And cinematographer Tim Orr, who's shot every one of Green's films, is a wizard-poet when it comes to capturing sunlight onscreen. A gorgeous, tough, strange, moving, dark, exciting film.
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