Monday, January 28, 2013

Non-lollipop Docs.

A few years back, I posted more frequently about the so-called, "Non-lollipop Docs" -- that is, documentaries which aren't just for suckers, and which give you some real-life meat to chew on. Here are a few I caught in 2012 on the big screen. In a few days, I'll also post about several I bumped into last year on DVD.

Searching for Sugar Man. (Malik Bendjelloul)

An easy pick for my doc of the year, this uplifting, stranger-than-fiction story is actually a contender for my favorite movie of 2012 -- doc or not. It's the kind of beautiful story the world needs to see, and the fact that this is reality makes it all the more stunning to take in. The story follows an investigation into the death of American musician Rodriguez, a non-seller in the early seventies here in the States, with two(-and-a-half) albums to his credit. The fact that his records sold millions as anthemic protest songs for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, coupled with the fact that Rodriguez knew nothing about that movement, including the amount of money he should have garnered from royalties there, is unheard of, and unfair-- but it's actually the smaller part of the story... The mass legend surrounding his on-stage suicide (did he light himself on fire on stage? or something even worse?) -- never corroborated -- and the investigation into how and why the musician from Detroit disappeared takes on an intensity of its own. I cannot say more than that, as this story is incredible, and could only happen from a time the Internet did not exist. To spoil what happens in the investigative Searching For Sugar Man feels like a crime to anyone with the desire to see the film. See this with as little info as you can going in, and then buy the soundtrack that's now available, a "Best Of" Rodriguez, featuring songs from his two released LPs. (I still need to track the CD down for myself, but I've had the title song stuck in my head for months.)

Bully. (Lee Hirsch)

As the father of a ten and a seven year-old, I know this is an over-used word, one that makes its way from claims on the schoolyard playground to Internet forums and twenty-minute spots on news shows like "Sixty Minutes" and the like. But the "Bully" is a reality in our culture, kids modeling what they see in their peers and capitalist parents, where only the strong survive -- and the weak (or different), well, we don't have time for them. Bully, then, travels from Mississippi to Oklahoma to Georgia, telling the stories of a few victims of bullying, two of which only in loving memory as they could no longer endure the pain and tragically ended their young lives. The film shows a society of kids who are either too embarrassed or too isolated to bring their problems to adults who might help -- and it shows adults (principals, teachers, parents) who either turn a blind eye or are helpless to figure out a plan of action (mostly the former). While we can empathize with the victims, Bully doesn't go too far beyond that. This is a point and shoot film -- the most it's going to do is pay more attention to a problem we already know about. It's an effective doc for the sympathetic way it relays these kids' stories (quite well, I'll add), but at the end it's no closer to an answer, a way to solve the problem. Regardless, it's an excellent call for an understanding of tolerance and diversity, a call that needs to be heard in our culture's climate, no matter the hearer's age.

The House I Live In. (Eugene Jarecki)

Like he did with American foreign policy in Why We Fight (2005), Eugene Jarecki takes a strong look at a truly American problem -- he investigates and dissects it, personalizes it, and drives home his point with ferocious clarity. The House I Live In differs from Why We Fight in that we are now dealing with a domestic issue -- drugs, the way we enforce our "war on drugs," and the crushing effect of old-school law on already impoverished neighborhoods and black culture in general. The flow of power from an outdated and unstoppable system (the "Powers That Be") is again Jarecki's target on display. The tagline for the film reads: "In the past forty years, the war on drugs has accounted for 45 million arrests,  made America the world's largest jailer, and destroyed impoverished communities." Jarecki begins with a personal story, that of his nanny's son, a life lost to this so-called war. He then broadens his scope to street cops, politicians, talking heads, and the marginalized many caught in middle of this system. Sometimes all it takes to be "caught in the system" is to be born on the wrong side of town. All interviewees express disillusionment at the laws and the many in jail -- all express anger at the target on the back of inner-city youth -- all seem to understand that the last forty years have turned a "moral" idea to a money making government machine now totally out of control. The only problem I have with The House I Live In is that while there are great examples on display, I learned very little while watching the film. Like most, I've already come to the conclusions the doc reached. ("Hey, I get it. I'm already there.This is more about a war on racism and poverty than it is about narcotics, or anything else.") But it's a powerful film simply for archiving this moment in the war's history -- a moment which represents the cry of an oppressed people looking for better answers than just another blind arrest, or a gangland death, or a trite little phrase like, "Just Say No."

The Flat. (Arnon Goldfinger)

There have been extremely positive reviews floating around the Internet regarding The Flat -- Ebert giving it three-and-a-half stars, and the film's own poster carrying a quote from Michael Moore, describing it as, "One of the best movies of the year." This tiny production from Israel, shot with what looks like a cheap, hand-held digital camera, has also won numerous awards -- and with a subject matter like this, I guess I can understand that. Documentarian Goldfinger begins the process of clearing out a flat which belonged to his deceased grandparents, only to discover the two were originally brought to Tel Aviv from Germany as part of a plan hatched by friendly Nazis -- including a very high ranking Nazi, and apparently a true friend -- to help the Jews avoid the ethnic cleansing and concentration camps of the time. As Goldfinger digs into his Grandma's books, letters, antiques and photos, the extent of the friendship with this man (get-togethers over coffee, both couples enjoying dinners on the town), and collaboration with the Nazi party in general becomes a bit of a shocker to the filmmaker and his mom, the shock eventually reaching all the way to their extended family in Germany, too. I can understand the profound nature of all of this, the shock of it all. Goldfinger seems to be not only unraveling his past, but also implicating his family, perhaps their honor, too -- but certainly their identity. The problem I have with the doc is that it might have been a better book than a film. After ten minutes, the film spirals into utter boredom, the kind that you feel guilty for, the kind that makes you feel like a bad person and you wish you could try harder to stick with it. It's of little consequence to the viewer personally, and that's actually where the film fails. This may have been a huge issue for this family -- something anyone who sees The Flat will no doubt recognize -- but it translates little to a heart outside of the drama. (At least this heart.) It's a little dull, it goes on way too long, and I was hoping the best for the whole family, but at the end I was just glad for the credits to roll.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Woman Under the Influence. (1974) John Cassavetes

Crazy Times Two for A&F Nominations.

"Mabel's not crazy... She's unusual -- she's not crazy. So don't say she's crazy. This woman cooks, sews, makes the bed, washes the bathroom. What the hell is crazy about that? I don't understand what she's doing. I admit that...But I think I know..."

The words, spoken by Mabel's husband, Nick, are to a particular situation at the beginning of A Woman Under the Influence -- but they might generally be applied to their married relationship as a whole.

Mabel, played by Gena Rowlands (Oscar nominated for Lead Actress in 1974) is in a state of serious emotional and mental deterioration, spiraling out of control and sometimes scaring those close to her. What she suffers from exactly is hard to say. On some level she knows she's "wacko," as she says to Nick. But she wants to please, she wants to do right -- she aims to be the best wife, mother and friend that she can be. Only she can't get it right, try as she might, because at the core she is, as they've both said, "Wacko."

Peter Falk as Nick, the husband filled with love in spite of her regressive state, is also incredible in this devoted yet volatile performance. Nick is warm and affectionate when Mabel goes off the deep end, and even when he loses his temper (and who wouldn't with her?), he forgives and believes and trusts that she'll do better next time. The way he looks at her with endearing amusement, even as he knows in moments that she's nuts, is a look that might define a kind of definition of true love.

Their three kids aren't old enough to know they're dealing with a mom who is "off." When she asks how they see her, one of the boys pipes up: he sees her as "smart, and pretty -- but nervous." With a mom like this, from a child's perspective, she might actually seem like the liveliest, coolest mom on the planet. Mabel's still got a few years before they'll be embarrassed by her behavior -- but there's not a parent in the world who won't have to deal with that.

As her state deteriorates, Mabel's actions throw the family into chaos. Nick goes from loving Mabel through all of her weird ticks and odd displays, to realizing she's no longer fit for a guardian in the home. After Nick and his mom come home to naked children in the house and a stranger in the bedroom upstairs, they place a call to the family doctor.

In the doctor's presence Mabel completely unravels (and these are the scenes where Rowlands truly leaves her mark) -- unraveling partially from the fear of being committed, and also because she knows she's lost Nick's faith. She goes from trying to fight through this bug in her brain, to being aggressive and scornful, defying logic with hisses, and yet begging to stay with her children. At this point anyone can see she's too out of control to stay at home. Her actions, not her heart, seal her fate to an institution.

And when Mabel goes away, Nick learns that sometimes madness is a learned behavior.

Madness, in this film, is treated in a thoroughly humane way -- we see the real person in the struggle, the soul that wants to survive. Mabel's strongest desire is to be normal for her kids, for the people around her. She wants nothing more than to come to terms with her health crisis. When she suffers, we see her fight through the affliction, trying to be and do right, trying to love and desperately trying to not be socially awkward -- all the while teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

She'll be locked up for six months and Nick will have to find other ways to take care of the kids. This is an incredible film about how mental deterioration affects not only the afflicted person, but how it affects the family as a whole.

I've done just a bit of research and listened to the commentary track (created in 2004 for Criterion, featuring camerman Mike Ferris and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood), and I find the story of the creation of A Woman Under the Influence as intriguing as the film itself. The film's Wikipedia entry has an adept summary:

John Cassavetes was inspired to write A Woman Under the Influence when his wife Gena Rowlands expressed a desire to appear in a play about the difficulties faced by contemporary women. His completed script was so intense and emotional she knew she would be unable to perform it eight times a week, so he decided to adapt it for the screen. When he tried to raise funding for the project, he was told, "No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame."[1]
Lacking studio financing, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed from family and friends, one of whom was Peter Falk, who liked the screenplay so much he invested $500,000 in the project.[1] The crew consisted of professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes was serving as the first "filmmaker in residence" at their Center for Advanced Film Studies. Working with a limited budget forced him to shoot scenes in a real house near Hollywood Boulevard, and Rowlands was responsible for her own hairstyling and makeup.[1]
Upon completion of the film, Cassavetes was unable to find a distributor, so he personally called theater owners and asked them to run the film. According to college student Jeff Lipsky, who was hired to help distribute the film, "It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors." It was booked into art houses and shown on college campuses, where Cassavetes and Falk discussed it with the audience.[1] It was shown at the San Sebastián Film Festival, where Rowlands was named Best Actress and Cassavetes won the Silver Shell Award for Best Director, and the New York Film Festival, where it captured the attention of film critics like Rex Reed. When Richard Dreyfuss appeared on The Mike Douglas Show with Peter Falk, he described the film as "the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie" and added, "I went crazy. I went home and vomited," which prompted curious audiences to seek out the film capable of making Dreyfuss ill.[1]

Which very much characterizes the intensity of this story.

I've read elsewhere about Cassavetes, the signature style he brings to his films -- the "auteur" idea, in which you know you're viewing a Cassavetes film simply by watching it. This being my first experience with the deceased director, I can't say at this point that I see more than just an excellent film with bold performances, made in the mid-70s.


I did notice a particular style in the way the camera likes to move -- unexpected, sometimes catching you off guard, with various angles and tilts thrown in for surprising emotive power. Unrestrained edits, too, allow these bold movements an even greater degree of surprise. I'm wondering whether I'm onto the Cassavetes style by seeing this. I'll look forward to tracking down more of his films to find out.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Smiles of a Summer Night. (1955) Ingmar Bergman

Non-Bergman Bergman for A&F Nominations.

I have to admit I wasn't prepared for Smiles of a Summer Night, and I am not in agreement with the many favorable and positive reviews I find glowing around the 'net.

But at any given moment if you were to ask me to make a list of my favorite directors, Ingmar Bergman would make my Top Five, or my Top Ten, every time, easily.

Raised by a minister, he became agnostic as an adult, and every question between those two extremes is raised in the body of his work. Bergman's films have a certain fingerprint, a kind of atmosphere that only he creates -- there's always the search for God, for meaning, a reason to existence, but it isn't content with faceless or nameless spirituality. His films show, and then deny, that something is out there -- but whatever it is, if it is, it's just beyond our reach. His doubt, "adult" and logical in its nature, seems like an expression of a forlorn (and child-like) faith. The shadow of the Almighty creeps around every corner in his films, even as Bergman himself hides away and believes (pretends?) that it doesn't exist.

His style typically displays this, somewhat somber in its tone. His style typically matches his questioning nature, the stories of the meanings of existence he loved to write and direct.

It was a slow process for me to learn about Bergman, and why I so love his films. But over the years, the more I researched (and the more I continue to research by continuing to dig into his oeuvre), the more I am typically rewarded.

I was recording in a studio in Birmingham, England in January of 1996 when I was first introduced (on laser disc!) to Fanny and Alexander ('83). It was that film that, as a preacher's child, left a definite impression on me. The father in this film is a preacher, and he is a beast. Whereas my dad is no beast, but definitely a faith-filled man with an agenda, I understood some of the fear of the children in this film. Real and imagined concepts of ghosts and God constantly scare the children in this film -- but nothing frightens the kids more than the concept that God Himself, very much the same form as dad, could be the same juggernaut you fear.

It took a few years, but I eventually made my way into the black and white snowy archives of older Bergman, beginning with perhaps his two most well-known, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both from 1957, the auteur's finest year). Later Bergman wrestled with the same spiritually significant themes in his Faith trilogy, which may have been the pinnacle of these deep-seated musings: Through a Glass Darkly ('61), which Bergman has said "conquers certainty"; Winter Light ('63), which he then describes as "penetrating certainty"; and The Silence ('63) ("God's silence -- the negative imprint."). All three mesmerized me, shaking the foundations of my structured belief, and yet opening up new ways to a larger and better faith in a more mysterious and silent God. (I wrote more about the Faith Trilogy beginning here.)

Since then I have found repeated greatness in The Virgin Spring ('60), Persona ('66), Shame ('68), Cries & Whispers ('72), and Autumn Sonata ('78, and the one Bergman I saw and know that I loved, but don't remember it very well now).

I love this man. I love his heart, and his search, and more than anything, I'm thankful for his prolific output, and the truthful heaviness of his films.

But immediately noticeable about Smiles of a Summer Night is that it does not feel like a Bergman film at all. It feels like pre-Bergman Bergman, or a man who hasn't yet come into all the greatness I just described. It feels like it's 1955, before all the other films I just listed, and right at this moment Bergman hasn't yet found his voice.

It also feels cheap, and all too easy. It feels like something that came out of Hollywood at the time, only spoken in Swedish, with frolicking orchestral music in the background and a flair for the easy laugh. Is it unfair to the film itself that I know a bit about Bergman from a time after this film was made? Could I have sat through this classifiable "romantic comedy" (i.e., "romcom") (i.e., yuuck!) had it been another director and I didn't approach the story with Bergman bias?

Doubtful. Here's your story:

He is married to her but likes the other gal instead, the other gal likes him back but has taken on a new lover, the new lover is married but won't let anyone fool around with his mistress, but the maid likes him and his son and flirts with both and slaps the one but then shows him her boobs --- and so on, and so on, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad naseum, et al.

Only the humor is so put-on it feels like you're wading through theatrical melodrama to get to it -- and even then, only for a slight philosophic chuckle -- and the production has a slicker feel, like Bergman knew he needed the cash, like he needed to make this one count at the box office. Indeed, some research around the web shows that this was his most outlandish production cost at the time of filming ($100,000), and that the film made money world-wide upon release (you can still find a glowing review from 1957 here), and that after Smiles of a Summer Night was made, so goes the rumor, Bergman never had to worry about the cost of a production again. This was his hit, and after this, the finances would simply be there.

I'm sorry, but this has the stench of a mainstream sell-out. And yeah, they even had those in 1955.

I know there are artists who have to do this sort of thing in order to create the kind of art they want to make. In fact I just wrote about Woody Allen, who in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, plays an artist who needs to make a documentary on his successful brother-in-law (Alan Alda) in order to continue with the project of his dreams: a documentary on an Old Testament philosopher no one has heard of. Or -- you hear about the artists who work the jobs they hate in order to put food on the table and continue to chase after their own pursuits. The broke artist in the creative process, selling out to latch onto his dream, working the mill or the mine and running off to showcase stuff on weekends.

It's a noble idea, and a worthy pursuit for many. It's something I struggled with from time to time as a musician. (Yes, I did play six weeks on tour with that certain country band in order to raise cash for a debut recording in my second European alterna-rock band.)

But watching Smiles of a Summer Night simply feels, to me (a Bergman lover), like humiliation of the greatest kind.

They say he had a great sense of humor, between periods of depression and great anxiety.

Sadly, I guess there are polar extremes buried inside all of us.

Smiles of a Summer Night might be a nice little Swedish 50s rom-com, if that's what you're in the mood for. If you're in the mood to see a film by Ingmar Bergman, I say this is no film by the Ingmar Bergman I know, and you should avoid this monstrosity at all costs.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Two Woodys.

Crimes and Misdemeanors. (1989)  Woody Allen

Husbands and Wives. (1992)  Woody Allen

I've been falling drastically behind in my blogging attempts at keeping up with the A&F Marriage Nominations, but here are two I've caught over the last couple weeks that completely took me by surprise.

Why surprise? Probably because I don't consider myself the biggest fan of Woody Allen. I've got nothing against him, in fact I've enjoyed quite a few of his films over the years (Midnight in Paris even crept into the #10 spot on last year's Top Ten Films) -- but somewhere in the back of my mind I've labeled Allen-directed films as "romcom," and it's a genre I typically try to avoid, no matter how well-made.

It's a shame actually, because looking over his list of films, at least five have left a positive imprint in the back of my mind. So I guess my enjoyment of the two films here should really be little surprise at all.

Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film which sits at #79 on the A&F Top 100, sets its eye firmly on ethics, as it deals with the ramifications of both adultery and murder. It questions whether certain sins are tiered as higher or lower, whether sin and morality are man-made constructs which keep a peaceful code and hold things together -- ingrained in our psyche to keep humanity from tearing ourselves apart -- or whether these codes of conduct are derived from a larger plan, coming from a God (here represented from Jewish tradition), who has rules for mankind lest we be thrown into the bowels of hell.

The film follows parallel story lines, both intricately weaved into this theme. Allen's character, Cliff, is a documentary filmmaker, compromising his principles by taking a better paying job creating a TV-style documentary on his more successful film-making brother-in-law (played by the ever-exuberant Alan Alda). Cliff would rather be taking a new mistress and working with her on the documentary he had planned, which centers on an aging theologian and Old Testament philosopher who is a little out of touch with the ordinary citizen. It's a safe bet that nothing here is going to work for Cliff -- that he'll be let down in numerous (and lightly comedic) ways before his part in the story comes to an end.

The other story follows Judah (Martin Landau) as an opthamologist in serious trouble. An affair he has had for the previous two years has spun out of control, his mistress threatening to approach his wife with the details. Judah's brother, a man with a sordid past and crimes too many to count, recommends the easiest way to take care of the problem: get rid of this mistress, quickly, and permanently. Later, Judah has some guests over at the house when he receives a phone call from his brother. The deed is done. We watch as his betraying heart grapples with the guilt. We watch as he grieves, but gets away with it.

Two ghostly scenes I will always remember from Crimes and Misdemeanors. Both come out of nowhere, and both feel like visits from Jacob Marley to a quivering Ebeneezer Scrooge. Landau's Judah has a dreamy drop-in visit from his rabbi, who is also a patient and friend. The dreamy conversation they have describes the implications of Judah's potential crime, drawn up so tightly as to invade the very light in the room. Later, on a simple spontaneous visit to the house he grew up in, Judah ends up in conversation with his entire extended family (around a long rectangular table in an imagined dinner together) on fixed Universal morality, with the suggestion that whether there's a God or not, murder will "out" itself.

The film ends at a cocktail party where the two finally meet. Judah gives Cliff an idea for a film, and begins to talk, in detail, about the events of his crime as it has played out. The two sit and sip liquor: the one that seemingly gets away with everything, and the more innocent one who will be the loser no matter what the future holds. It is a strange combination, these two and this conversation, perfectly placed at the story's end as a climactic dialogue of sorts. How fitting that a conversation, the stuff where Allen excels, would make for a perfectly climactic ending to a movie based less on plot and more on underlying motivations.

This is a witty film, full of interesting questions about sin and the possibility that there might not even be such a thing if there is no higher power. It reads like a story, in fact that is what it is -- but it feels like a paper, a treatise of sorts, or an essay for a college philosophy class. The fact that it's still so entertaining while weighing all these heavy thoughts speaks to the level of talent in Allen's writing.

Husbands and Wives is a little different in the way it formally presents itself. The story is told in present tense, and begins with a couples get-together in which Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) meet at the apartment of Gabe and Judy (Allen and Mia Farrow, acting at this point in their last year of marriage), ready to go to dinner as the four sometimes do -- but on this night Jack and Sally begin with a casual announcement of their separation, the shocking news of which crushes Judy. The couples proceed with their dinner plans, trying to make the best of their night, but the film takes us by surprise when it suddenly cuts to Judy, breaking the fourth wall in a documentary interview, trying to piece together why she was so upset.

From here, we never really know what we're watching. Is it a story, or a documentary, or a documentary crew following the characters in present tense reality? The answer to this question turns out to be, "Yes."

This isn't the only thing that threw me for a bit of a loop in watching Husbands and Wives: the nature of the handheld camera work, the hard edits which establish shifts in emotional response, the zoom of the lens itself which functions in much the same way, and back and forth weaving between straight narrative and documentary interruption are all a bit "edgy," in my opinion, for the time the film was made. Created in 1992, it feels like it must have been a bit ahead of the curve when it came out. This is smart story telling, not happy with taking its characters simply from Point A to Point B, but throwing in a few indentations and formal (artsy) ticks along the way.

The dialogue, again, is top notch. Like the presentation itself, and the indentations I've noted, Woody Allen dialogue is never used as a plot device to simply propel characters in a narrative arc; rather, the way these characters speak to each other springs from the kinds of real conversations people in this setting might actually have. The tempo is lively (one has to sometimes wonder whether anyone is allowed to take time to think before they speak), but there is always something deeper going on than a simple convo that leads to another scene.

Like Crimes and MisdemeanorsHusbands and Wives will also end ironically with the director being the most unfulfilled of the whole cast. One has to wonder if this was a period in Allen's life when in two films he comedically expressed some inner turmoil.

Both films are worth seeking out, and will be getting very high rankings in the vote I'll be taking part in this weekend. As far as films for the marriage category, they'll both be getting a solid 4/5 from me. I've been happy to be introduced to these older gems, and I'd love to seek out other older films from Woody Allen.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Squid and the Whale. (2005) Noah Baumbach

Slight Flip, No Flop for A&F Nominations.

Ooooh. This FILMSWEEP reaction is gonna be a fun one.

On November 19, 2009, on my favorite film forum I wrote:

I flip flop about this stuff all the time. Been doing it for years. 

The comment was in reference either to certain films that I couldn't stomach, films which I have loathed for one reason or another over the years -- which have now, for whatever reason, grown on me -- or for certain films which at one point I truly loved, which I've now decided, eeeh, that wudn't so great after all. (Duh!)

Here's where it gets sorta fun:

On the same thread, a thread with the title, "Worst Films of the Decade," about a month and exactly twelve posts later I went completely bonkers in regard to my hatred for The Squid and the Whale and anyone who finds value in the film. (My years of friendship with the peeps and crits there have made me a little more casual than I am here on the blog. Come to think of it, just reading the following has already made this particular FILMSWEEP entry a bit more casual. But... Whatevs.)

In that post, I wrote:

The Squid and the Whale is my pick for worst film of the decade according to the standards set here. I hate it with all my being. I hate it like I hate rapini. I hate it like I hate a fraud, which is really what this thing is. And I hate that many of you love it. You people are all screwed up for loving this stench-infested garbage. It is a horrible, horrid, awful film that on the one hand pretends it has something meaningful to say about kids of divorced parents being screwed up, and on the other hand has such farcical ideas as both the dad sleeping with he-and-his-son's roommate, and an almost-pubescent kid who wipes his semen all over public places and drinks beer and hard liquor and not a parent seems to care. Pick one or the other, not all three. I hate the characters, too. There are many reasons to hate this film, but the greatest reason to hate it is that so many of you seem to champion it as an apologetic against divorce -- and a comedic one at that. There's nothing funny in The Squid and the Whale. I loathe every character and every action. I loathe the writing and its cutsie pie "I can get away with this sick sh*t and pretend that is has a point." But there is no point. Oh gee, I guess that final "artsy" shot of the squid and the whale was supposed to make me think. Like I can't think for myself. What a load of crap. And again, gee, let's all talk about it in some pseudo-intellectual coffee house and pretend we're all in the in-crowd, an act that makes us happier when we sleep at night

UGH! :-(*)

I have to admit that in going back and reading what I wrote, I really did make myself laugh. I am a lucky man to be able to rant at the forum sometimes, and still find a friend or two there.

Here's the thing:

In the past few years, I have changed. I have been through divorce, found a path to recovery from alcoholism, dropped a faith, picked up a hope, lost many friends, gained a few new friends and lost some of those too, gained some of the new lost friends back again and hoped for my kids to not have to go through any of the crazy life experiences I've had to deal with.

I have learned that no matter how dark things seem at the moment, you've just gotta hold on for a little bit, and if nothing good comes your way -- go out and make something good for someone else. (It helps a lot more than you might think.)

And I just watched The Squid and the Whale again.

I can honestly flip just a wee bit on this miserable film, because now that I look at it again, I really think it wants me to hate it. I think that's the reason for its very existence. I can't see it any other way. This is a self-involved film about self-involved characters who are constantly irritating each other and (as in the very first scene, a match of a family game of tennis) competing to be the smarter, competing to be the better. The parents here are arrogant (dad in particular an arrogant has-been), and they raise their children to model their ugly displays of unworthy conceit.

Note: I am no longer saying this is not a well-made film. I concede on that end. As a film, it is well-made. I just can't understand its need for creation in the first place. (And yes, I'm looking directly at you, Baumbach, because a few years back I said the same exact thing about another one of your films -- Greenberg.)

I am open to tracking down or being shown interviews of writer/director Baumbach to find out why he creates any of these films or people, these monster movies of the inhuman condition. I love a good horror movie, but -- "Oh, the humanity." Even in a horror film you've got to care about the person first in order to care that (s)he's in danger of being slashed or gutted or whatever! The characters in The Squid and the Whale lack redeeming value, like a family member at Christmas that you just wish wouldn't show up anymore. You can't see anything good in them -- in fact, there might not be anything good there at all.

Seriously, Baumbach? Is that how you see people? Hate to meet you some day at a cocktail party.

In some ways, The Squid and the Whale reminds me of two well-made films from this year that I rather despise as well: Margaret (poor Anna Paquin, who finds herself in both Margaret and The Squid and the Whale -- I swear I have nothing against her personally), and Take This Waltz, which I wrote in detail about Here. These are all films which drag us through the most torturous parts of life, crawling in the muck of our own meanness, showcasing the ease with which we can lash out rather than change -- with the simplicity of a good cry or a moment of profound clarity at the end trying to justify the bile we've just recognized in ourselves.

Look. I like a nice depressing movie sometimes. Check out my profile, there are plenty of them there. But for a depressing film to strike any kind of a chord in me, it needs to offer more than just depression and a good cry as its goal (or a quiet moment of clarity as in The Squid and the Whale). Such a film is no better than the many times in my evangelical upbringing where I got up from a good cry at the altar, only to realize later that the whole thing had been manipulated by music and a "righteous" man on a power trip.

Where is the artistry here? What point does any of this have? Is Baumbach pointing to something in his own life, and if so, how has he not already jumped off a bridge?

I do not connect well with films that only scream about how dreary life is, how good we are at fucking it up.  They leave us empty, we walk out of the experience quite soulless. We've been offered no hope, no brighter future to hang our hat on, no ending to the terminal sadness, no resolution to the inner chaos we can't control.

I will admit today that this film is well made. And if the goal is to hate it, it accomplishes its goal quite well. But I do not understand the desire to paint this picture, and I say that as one who has been through the ringer myself.

Are there people out there who really want to hold onto the darkness forever?

I once went to a party, and I drank too much booze, and I threw up a pile of well-made vomit.

Well made? Sure, why not.

I guess that's a flip for this flop.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Loneliest Planet. (2012) Julia Loktev

She Walks Alone With Me for A&F Nominations.

One decision in one split second can change everything.

But sometimes the decision comes from raw instinct and not even from the heart or head. It's not decisive, necessarily, but any movement made will be the decision. That movement is the impulse for survival, the act of protecting one's self -- a motion to protect self when confronted with something fearful.

Sometimes in the instinctual act to save yourself, you end up hurting someone else in the process. 

And sometimes, two people who have been through trauma together want to heal, move forward, and walk down a road together as companions -- but all they can do is walk together in loneliness. The healing takes time (and even effort, from both); deadened desire must first be re-birthed in the heart.

The Loneliest Planet is a film about two such people, Alex and Nica, engaged to be married and backpacking around a terrain somewhere in Eastern Europe. It's about the way their response to events changes the very nature of their relationship -- how they relate to each other, how they respond to each other, and later, how they don't relate, how they don't respond. 

It's also about the choices we make later on. The silly things we allow when we've already been through the hardest part. The final fifteen minutes of this film are the hardest to watch, as we see Nica, reemerging from the trauma she's been through with her beloved and reaching out to another to regain composure. You might think to yourself, "Get it together, Nica. Alex loves you." But no one can understand the path of a heart that's been through such trauma -- and disappointment. 

This is a very slow film that rather plods along for close to an hour, and you might wish that something would simply happen. And then it does. It happens. And it changes everything about how you're watching the film. You begin to see these characters very differently, and you hope for them in a very different way. And then suddenly, the story comes to an end, and you find yourself wanting to back up and watch again.

This is a beautiful film about beautiful people who relate, and then want to relate, but cannot.