Sunday, January 14, 2007

Catching Up on Flicks

And another thing:

I'm on the board and planning committee of WRIF (White River Independent Film) festival, and have somehow squeezed watching films into the insanity of the past couple of weeks. The coming festival is this April, so we're hustling now to screen and select films.

Marge and I also, out of desperation and the need to sit still for a couple of hours amid/apart from the hubbub of the packing/moving/unpacking, cut out and caught a couple of movies in nearby theaters during the same time period; those I've included here, too.

[BTW, I'm guest-lecturing in Cole Odell's interim semester comics history class at Middlebury College tomorrow, hitting the road very early in the AM, so I won't be posting here on Monday -- hence, this meaty blog post, which hopefully will keep one and all until Tuesday. Enjoy!]

Screened this past two weeks:

* The Decay of Fiction (2002) -- A Meta-Haunted-Hotel movie! Essentially an experimental film melding of Cindy Sherman (her staged photos from nonexistent B-movies), Clive Barker (his Books of Blood story "Son of Celluloid"), Russian Ark and The Shining, Pat (Horizontal Boundaries, Trouble in the Image, etc.) O'Neil's film deserves rediscovery. It took me some time to realize the black-and-white (and some color) "old movie" footage wasn't genuine archival material, but ingeniously staged for this film -- reportedly representing O'Neil's first work with actors -- mounting a compelling meditation on malingering cinematic spirits in Los Angeles's now-abandoned & crumbling Hotel Ambassador (closed in 1988, scheduled for demolition in 1994 -- when O'Neil began work on this film -- and according to O'Neil's final credits note, since serving as a location for "over 1000 film projects"). The imagery is entirely invented, but the soundtrack is composed of sound bytes from seminal film noir and borderline noirs (e.g., The Big Combo, The Shadow, His Kind of Woman, Sudden Fear, The Big Knife, The Blue Dahlia, Fear in the Night, Out of the Past, etc.), slippery as black ice. From this, O'Neil weaves a cinematic tapestry, seamless and expansive, uncannily shot and edited (visually and aurally; the soundtrack consistently teases and engages with splinters of half-heard dialogue and suggestions of narrative drive that deliberately refuse to cohere). The bravado exploration of the physical (and metaphysical) environment layers overlapping time frames: time-lapse acceleration sends breeze-blown curtains and vegetation twitching spastically, day/night scurries by, airplanes and helicoptors flit like illuminated moths and/or shooting stars across the dusk/night/dawn skies, shadows shift like water currents... and all the while, 'ghosts' of performers, diners, thugs, children, hotel staff and various denizens from a sea of 1940s movies and the hotel's past rerun their long-past interactions. It culminates, as it must, in gunshots, at which point the occasional intrusion of a strange subterranean realm (where the flames from burning objects descend rather than ascend and blurred nude, masked figures flutter and stutter) erupts into all corners of this cavernous limbo, overwhelming the hotel & film with a procession of corporeal demons and ethereal angels. This gem isn't for all tastes (it is calculated to feel interminable, evoking both limbo and eternity in the confines of the hotel), but on its own terms it's endlessly playful and enigmatic, which will naturally bore and/or enrage those unwilling to play along with O'Neil. For those attuned, though, this is a brilliant conceit, mesmerizing and completely original.

* The Descendant (2006): I quite like this film, a debut feature from Canadian filmmaker Philippe Spurwell, though it suffers as many contemporary genre films do from genre expectations. It is a horror film, by any definition, and adheres to genre conventions in its orientation, but one horror movie buffs will grow impatient with due to its discretion and lack of overt mayhem; there are no lurid exploitation elements, no overt violence or gore, which have been de rigueur since the 1960s. Being a horror film, though, those who might truly enjoy its restraint, measured pace and ultimate destination are likely to pass it by, fearing the worst: a horror film for audiences who hate horror films. The Descendant is sumptuously mounted and beautifully filmed, but the script has its shortcomings, failing to adequately illuminate key characters much beyond stereotypes (the guilt-ridden Grandmother, the petulant Grandpa harboring unspoken secrets, the townspeople who might as well have stepped out of another remake of Dracula, even if they are in a contemporary Quebec border village). By so completely submerging its revelation -- perhaps to dramatically make it revelatory -- it cheats a bit, in that there's nothing we see about the Duke family history to overtly link them directly with the climax's tip-of-the-hand. But that's the point: this family has so completely buried its past, it's truly hidden from sight, until James's detective work unveils the tentative links leading to the final act. The elements necessary to the climax are introduced from the first shot of the film (an ominously lit wall-hung quilt), though one is unlikely to piece (pun intended) the clues together due to the setting, really; were this set in the American South, we'd anticipate and wholly expect its climactic turn. The clues provided are experienced obliquely, in that we're not sure what to make of them as they are presented, often with great subtlety. Some of these moments (e.g., the windmill) work beautifully and are nicely done; some of these clues (particularly the folderol involving a framed photo) play too obliquely. More disconcerting are the inconsequential passages of time at key narrative junctures (e.g., James's last full day at his grandparents home) in a rush to get to the pivotal nighttime sequences: these are the weakest script passages, and no amount of finessing on the part of the direction or editing can cover these unfortunate lapses (they're not as destructive as the similar lapses in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, but similarly problematic). One cannot help but wonder what's happening for what have to be 12 hour stretches in the narrative scheme of things.

Nevertheless, this is an ambitious attempt at doing something with political content in a genre (the ghost story) that traditional refutes social or political context. That it is also steeped in and drawn from genuine regional history and lore (a dirty secret of southern Quebec's 18th Century legacy) is a plus. An interesting, satisfying and earnest film that attempts much in its genre framework, and a climax that redeems the seams for this viewer.

* Dragon (2006): This animated short played at the 2006 Atlanta Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival, and won Grand Jury Prize as Best Animated Short at the 2006 Slamdance Film Festival. A fine fusion of stop-motion clay model animation (nicely done) and drawn animation, a visual and thematic scheme Troy Morgan neatly integrates into the film's emotional and narrative core. The drawn elements reflect the orphan's 'drawing' world, while the clay animation is the film's 'reality'; the collision of these two realms, and the consequences of that disruption, is the film's point. The staging is effective, the miniature sets and models stylized and yet evocative of a wider world. Short and sweet, makes its point and clears the stage; it owes a debt to the Bernard Rose's nifty UK feature Paperhouse, if you recall that gem.

* From Shtetl to Swing (2005): Some may object to this film's technique (entirely composed of clips, orchestrated to illustrate the film's premise under Harvey Feinstein's narration), but this is an excellent documentary. Its value lies in its point: the dynamic between impact of the heavy Jewish immigration population on early 20th Century pop culture and its role in the mainstreaming of Black American music and dance broke down barriers of prejudice and paved the way for the Civil Rights movement's success of the '60s. Given the intense scrutiny black filmmakers have given to this phase of pop culture in the context of racist pop culture (see Spike Lee's Bamboozled and the recent, excellent mockumentary CSA: Confederate States of America), the recontextualizing of minstrel show content & imagery and now-reviled performers like Al Jolson is significant and quite profoundly redressed in this film. Filmmaker Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir makes a strong case for the role the 'black mask' had in the crossover between Jewish and Black musical performance art in all forms, thus making a clip of Al Jolson donning blackface (from Sing You Fool, I think) unexpectedly moving. In this new context, we see its function and necessity for performers like Jolson, and the part this theatrical archetype played in innovative race relations in the 1930s and '40s. While WASP America reviled both the Black and the Jew, the Blacks and Jews quietly broke walls and built bridges. In this newly articulated historic context, one not only understands Jolson's pivotal place in pop and cinematic history, but perhaps for the first time sympathizes with and grasps with Jolson's role.

The argument -- that it was the deep ties between Jewish and black musical experience that led from minstrel shows and vaudeville, Jolson and Eddie Cantor to the breakthrough integration of Benny Goodman's band and more tolerant music halls & venues -- is persuasively and succinctly presented. This is a pretty dynamite doc, and though it is composed entirely of clips (including a sometimes infuriating integration of unusual source material shorn of its original context: Jewish population movement across Europe evoked via shots of the enigmatic supernatural 'Wandering Jew' character from The Dybbuk; the sea voyages of immigrants illustrated in part with miniature shots from King Kong, etc.), the film works beautifully. As a diehard afficianado of jazz and old musical reels, I was unprepared for how this film's context added fresh & deep resonance to familiar material. By the time we're seeing a youthful Lionel Hampton riffing energetically with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, the fresh historical orientation makes the synergy between these performers, and the creative bonds & unprecedented societal tolerance that allowed them to play together and be celebrated during Jim Crow era America, truly a revelation.

* The Good Shepard (2006): At last, Robert De Niro is doing something of substance again. Were that not cause enough for celebration, De Niro (directing and providing pivotal character acting support) has also made the best (and most timely) narrative film on America's covert intelligence community ever. De Niro and screenwriter Eric Roth deftly side-stepping all temptations to tip this into conventional thriller turf (as the otherwise intelligent Three Days of the Condor did, for instance) to craft an unflinching character study of its protagonist, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), whose personal history coincides precisely with the post-World War 2 emergence of the CIA and its terrible blossoming as the black rose at the heart of US foreign policy. Roth constructs this fictionalized dramatization around the true-life career of James Jesus Angleton, who was the head of Counterintelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency for two decades (1954-1974), fleshing out history with a compelling arc that leads from Wilson's college innocence (playing the female role in H.M.S. Pintafore, an innocence neatly framed by the finale's soundtrack evocation of the very song Wilson is singing onstage when we first meet his character: this film is flawlessly structured) to his rite-of-passage (the Skull & Crossbones fraternity), indoctrination, and eventual slide into directing the CIA's international power base. Throughout, we share the constricted arena of his personal life, too, and see how his inability to engage with life while "serving his country" culminates in the ultimate imaginable parental betrayal of his own flesh and blood; the narrative logic is razor sharp and inexorable. By so rigorously maintaining this delicate balancing act -- the constant collusion and collision between the global events Wilson is being pulled into and affecting, and the inevitable consequences of his actions and inactions in that sphere have upon his most personal life, however much he tries to separate and/or defer those consequences -- The Good Shepard illuminates our own complicity as a nation, as a people: though Wilson keeps his hands free of blood every step of the way down the dark alleys of his career, he is still directly responsible for lives and deaths, as are we through men like Wilson. In hindsight, one realizes Wilson's power is such that by the conclusion, his decision to not act, to not answer, still can mean life or death for another human being -- there's no escaping responsibility, or the consequences. Hence, this powerful snapshot of the intelligence community and the kind of individuals essential to it is the most damning portrait imaginable of how the US conducts itself on the world stage, and thus as timely a Hollywood film as one can imagine at this point in our sorry history. Roth's and De Niro's accomplishments cannot be overstated; along with Martin Scorsese's The Departed, this is among the best theatrical mainstream films of the year, sober, meditative and fearless. Needless to say, the cast is exceptional; Damon, inhabiting the netherworld twixt his roles in The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Bourne Supremacy, is perfect in the hub of this extraordinary wheel.

* Hand of God (2006): A fiercely intelligent, introspective, concise and surprisingly comprehensive dissection of the notorious Massachusetts Catholic Church scandal involving priests who were habitual child molestors -- not only sheltered by the church, but moved from diocese to diocese and promoted to higher positions of community authority, permitting further access to their youthful prey. What makes this film all the more essential, though, is the fact that director Joe Cultrera was chronicling the case history of his own older brother Paul, and the impact Paul's eventual disclosure of abuse (eight years before The Boston Globe's reporters ripped the lid off the wider scope of the church's abuses and utterly damning evidence of its magnitude and the ongoing coverup & corruption) had upon Paul's entire family and community. What makes this the best film I've seen to date on the subject, though, is how articulate all parties involved are: though traumatized, Paul is that rare individual who somehow maintained his equilibrium throughout his life, and comes across from his first moment onscreen as a forthright, honest and candid subject, comprehending and communicating the scope of the tragedy, from its most intimate terrors to the full-blown betrayal of power, faith and community the conspiracy of abuse and silence truly manifests. His younger brother (the filmmaker) matches his brother's unflinching ferocity for the truth every step of the way, sans the fog of anger, just as their working-class devout Italian Catholic parents come across with moving clarity and integrity. It's astounding, really, that the Cultreras are at the center of this maelstrom: one is tempted to see this, perhaps, as the hand of God at work, given how easily any family member could have succumbed to the sort of ire, outrage or hatred that would have completely unhinged their lives (and the film). Tellingly, director Cultrera gives the church figures involved every chance to present their own side: the arrogant dismissals and onscreen behavior of the priests, bishops and cardinals involved speaks volumes. This is an excellent film; one is tempted to use descriptives like "devastating" and "infuriating," but what makes this film so unique is the fact that it never, ever loses focus on its people, on matters of the heart and spirit, and never takes the easy path of anger or abject outrage. Required viewing! (Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic in VT; I had a friend who committed suicide as a teenager, possibly due to priest sexual abuse; this definitely hit a nerve for me stem to stern.)

Spoiler Warning:
Don't Read the Following Review
Until/Unless You've Seen the Film!

(Note: This is the last review in today's post, so you're not missing anything but this if you choose not to read on. There's simply no way to discuss this film without engaging with its content, which could ruin the film for you -- sorry for the conundrum, constant reader.)

* The History Boys (2006): Director Nicholas Hytner's collaborative effort with playwright Alan Bennett to adapt his popular stage success to the big screen radiates British attitudes many Americans will find off-putting, from the behavior of the titular clique of overachieving school boys (all on the cusp of adulthood and college, laboring to make the cut into the high-end universities of their choosing) to the overt homosexual overtures of their instructors to the students, which drives the narrative thrust (pun intended) of the entire affair. Their obese instructor Hector (vet character actor Richard Griffiths) is the core of this melodrama, whether on or off screen, as it's his behavior, misbehavior, and possible usurping that is pivotal to all that happens.

the cultural context of England's traditional boys schooling, though, this is as entertaining and fascinating a case history as it is appalling to many unprepared American viewers (check out the imdb board). If tolerating institutionalized homosexuality and/or pedophilia (and no, I'm not confusing the two, as many homophobes do) is necessary to enlightenment, I'm with the naysayers. There's a world of difference between the emotional struggle we see the new instructor Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) go through -- he is, it's made abundantly clear, much closer in age to his students, and thus in even more problematic turf -- and the casual acceptance/indifference the students have about Hector's conduct: in fact, a case could be made for that tolerance stemming directly from Hector's apparent impotence in the student's eyes, as if an overweight old schoolmaster were inherently harmless, even if he does make a ritual of cherry-picking which student's nuts he'll be groping each day. Thus, it's arguably his obesity that neuters the inherent controversy: Hector won't really do anything, really, is the comfy attitude of the play, the film and the boys themselves (tell that to John Wayne Gacy's teenage victims). The perverse final twist (in which heterosexual sexual misconduct between adult and younger staff is instrumental to the illusory redemption for homosexual misconduct) is a neat twist of Bennett's blade, as deft a bit of black comedy as I've seen of late, but still fails to address, per American sensibilities, the gross misconduct/crimes both sets of behavior represents: "for Christ's sake, get these old pervs away from these young men and women!"

The Brits laugh -- their educational institutions apparently thrive upon tolerating such trifles -- and carry on (pun intended: there is, in fact, a nifty Carry On reference in the film, which succinctly captures the easing of what was the pop cultural debris of one generation into the "fair game" turf of academia by the 1980s). In short: if you can digest/tolerate/share that cultural presumption, you'll savor the film, which is indeed clever, witty, perfectly cast (with the original UK National Theater cast in place, I've read) and executed, and a smashing show, all in all, however compromised a piece of cinema it may be (filmed theater too often feels like filmed theater, and this item succumbs to many detriments of its ilk; only the elder cast shines like sterling). If you can't, you'll be horrified by the final reel's eulogy and see it all as emblematic of the inherent corruption of Queen (pun intended) and Country from the root, be appalled at what is essentially an ode to beloved old ball-fondling teachers who, despite their lapses in moral judgment, really are the finest teachers and moral instructors in the world and didn't really do any harm, really, 'cuz the boys knew better and rose above that sort of sordid thing -- even if their maturation hinges on turning the tables on those who can't keep their hands to themselves, thus manipulating their own teenage youth, energy, beauty and sexual allure to ruthlessly further their own budding careers, all the better if you're aggressive, narcissistic, fearlessly bisexual or far more adventurous sexually than the other lads. Thus, this is arguably a black comedy satire of a form -- the coming-of-age school melodrama, a'la Tom Brown's School Days or Dead Poet's Society -- and as such it's dead on for much of its running time: the moral compromises portrayed as inherent and necessary to the maturation of the History Boys clique inverts traditionalist scruples and ridicules piety.

And yet -- the final act, including the coda, embodies rather than satirizes its own skewed piety; down to its "where are they now" tying up of narrative arcs for each of the characters, it's American Graffiti for the upscale Brit Boarding School set. Clearly, with its final setpiece, the film sentimentalizes its own ultimately amoral universe. What is Bennett saying? He seems to honestly want us all misty-eyed over Hector's plight by the end, nostalgic for the days headmasters were skirt-chasers and schoolmasters were so passionate about education that one should overlook their dalliance with student bodies. While I can certainly empathize and commiserate with the characters (particularly new instructor Irwin, the most sympathetic character in the play: he is, at least, honestly struggling with all aspects of his position, including his unease with using the authority position he's now in to take advantage of his young charges) and enjoy the spectacle, such as it is, I can't ignore the obvious. The playwright stacked this narrative deck, then seems determined to pluck my heart strings as if the stacked deck weren't stacked in the direction he's so precisely placed it. It's an emotional shell game, one I couldn't fall for.

The moral quagmire The History Boys inhabits isn't engaged with, really; it's quite willfully sidestepped, it's played upon like a board game, and the assumption that all this man-boy horseplay is really okay, really, is essential to playing, period (this is precisely the kind of perverse fossil Lindsay Anderson skewered in If....). That's a leap some simply may refuse to make -- but hey, I can indulge the serial murders essential to enjoying Peter Greenaway's cinematic puzzles or Robert Fuest's Dr. Phibes films, so this wasn't much of a leap. I did enjoy the film, immensely, but the moral qualms malinger; I can't share the complacency of those who left the theater smiling without guile. It was pretty tough to engage with The History Boys the same week I screened Hand of God. The steady-on Brits may have more tolerance for authority figures taking advantage of youth (whatever the sexual orientation or however clumsy the gropings, a strangely insistent dismissal of objections to the play & film's content when one reads reactions to The History Boys) than those who suffered at the hands of priests, but in the context of American culture, it sure looks like inexcusable NAMBLA apologist blinders to me.

Call me old-fashioned, but by the end I was positively aching for the comeuppance of Zero for Conduct or, better yet Lindsay Anderson's If... as the Rogers & Hart crooning graced the credits: fuck "Bewitched," I'm hardly bothered and bewildered -- bring on Malcolm McDowell, machine guns and righteous anarchy. Now, there's an honorable British institution I can relate to.

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