Friday, 30 November 2007

eastern promises (dir. cronenberg)

The film opens with a scene of dramatic violence. A barber tries to convince his son to cut his customer's throat. The son doesn't want to. The barber does it. The director shows the blood emanating from the great tear in the throat. The victim convulses and the audience flinches.

Cronenberg opens his movie with a scene of high drama. By the end, the drama has been extinguished. A child plays with its adopted family. A man sits in the restaurant he now controls. Their stories are far from over, but the film is moving on, and the credits roll.

This contrast between the implied dramatic weight of the film and the actual dramatic weight is curious. It could be interpreted as the director running out of steam, editing together a short cut ending because he wasn't sure how to finish it. However, the pace and the tone feel in keeping with the rest of the film, so it may be something else.

Increasingly, Cronenberg's films come to feel like fables. He has lost interest, if he ever had it, in the mechanics of plot. He creates characters who have a timlessness, belonging to timeless societies. The villains who arrive at the beginning of History of Violence could be from any stage of US history. They arrive like something out of a Western. The Russians from Eastern Promises belong to a secret criminal society that has a mythical, preternatural aura.

Cronenberg doesn't seem interested in the details of the drug smuggling the criminals are involved with. The revelation that Mortensen's character, Nikolai, is an undercover cop, seems incidental. He doesn't even seem interested in the brewing love affair between Mortensen and the fragrant Naomi Watts. What seems to fascinate him nowadays is the notion of how close the forces of anti-sociality, the secret codes of violence, are to our own society. How they are closer than we think, and when they arrive, they have no connection with the world as we see it, and their destructive power is incalculable.

Eastern Promises consciously pulls its punches. The audience knows this because we know how hard it can punch. The scenes of violence establish this - the throat cutting and the bath-house bloodbath. But just as we're anticipating the mother of all finales - it doesn't happen. The child survives and Naomi Watts sits in the garden wearing a pretty dress. Nickolai's takeover of his wing of the Russian mafia is painless, his mentor, Semyon, simply vanishes. It's like the Godfather with the ruthlessness implied but not demonstrated.

Cronenberg's movies no longer have the snap, crackle and pop of his earlier frightners. They are meditative works, where the violence has become a part of the scenery, rather than a means to a dramatic end. London is a grey, damp world in his movie, a land of no promise, and the forces of darkness are lurking, just around the corner.

Friday, 16 November 2007

the band's visit (dir Eran Kolirin)

Kolirin knows how to frame an image. The opening shot shows a man trying to fit a yellow balloon into the front seat of a camper van. We don't know why the man is doing this, nor will we ever learn. The man gets in the van, drives off, and is never seen again. What lies behind the van is a group of eight policemen, members of the police band who have arrived in Israel to perform. They stand there, puzzled, immobile in the their faintly comical powder blue uniforms. The camera has never moved.

This eye for a set-up continues throughout The Band's Visit, lending the film a crafted, dispassionate aesthetic. A military band carrying instruments of various sizes through a dusty desert is a visual treat, and the director is not afraid to spoil us, lingering over their haphazard progress. However, there is more to this dispassionate eye than mere pretty pictures. The danger that the film's narrative runs is that it will become too sachirine. Kolirin resists this with his pared back script and the cast's understated performances.

The film tells the story of a military band who get on the wrong bus and end up in the middle of deepest Israel. They are befriended by Dina, a free-spirited and bored cafe owner, with a curious history, never revealed. There are no more buses, so the band is forced to accept the hospitality she and a friend offer. The next day they leave for the concert. That's it. The drama is all in the culture clash, the coming together of old enemies. In Dina's cafe, one of the policeman hangs his blue hat over a picture of an Israeli tank.

Any hint of sentimentality would undercut the film, and leave it open to charges of implausibility. Wisely, Kolirin's script is as carefully composed, and restrained, as his shot composition. There's no Hollywood ending. The characters don't find it easy to get on with the enemy. They have to negotiate for common ground, scrabble around for moments where they can trust and alight upon the field of their common humanity.

Music helps, nowhere more so than in the scene where three bandsmen sing Summertime lugubriously, in the company of an awkward Israeli family. Perhaps oddly, the other thing that assists them is their lack of a common language. They are forced to resort to English, and in their mutual uncertainty with the second language they find common ground.

You can see why The Band's Visit has been so successful on the international festival circuit. The band finally find their way to the site of their performance, and the film concludes with Tawfiq, the weather-beaten bandleader, singing a traditional Arabic tune. Israeli and Egyptian flags flutter in the background. The hope is tangible: culture alone gives a framework for the possibility of understanding. The most intractable of divisions can be overcome.

However, The Band's Visit's restraint, and gentle pacing, alludes to another truth: that these divisions will not heal in a rapidly edited hurry. They healing must be allowed to proceed at its own pace. It must be handled with due care, and great consideration.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

into the wild (dir. Sean Penn)

A lot happens in the final few minutes of Into The Wild. The hero, Christopher McCandless dies an excrutiating death and communes with his parents. Most of the characters he's met along the way are shown in flashes, having some kind of positive experience. A helicopter shot pulls away from the Magic Bus, last resting place of McCandless, and spins off into the sky. Finally, a still of the real McCandless is shown, looking uncannily like the one we've been watching for the past two hours and twenty minutes, played by Emile Hirsch.

For a slow moving film, it's a busy ending, and in many ways it seems to undercut the pathos of McCandless' sad demise. It's practically screaming at its audience: He Didn't Die in Vain!

Which brings us on to the God question. Rainey, the hippie who befriends the hero early on, asks him playfully if he's not Jesus - and suggests he might like to walk on water. At this point we know he's just a mixed up kid who's got the wandering bug, so the remark's a joke. But it's a joke which seems to take over the film. McCandless wanders like a saint through the city, rejecting the way it corrupts the soul. He displays a strong asexuality, refusing the advances of a beautiful soul mate either because she's only sixteen (an unlikely prohibition for this free spirit) or because he's truly so unworldly that he doesn't do sex. He preaches on the mount, talking to the old timer who's befriended him about how God is in everything. And, the final sequence seems to be suggesting, in the end he comes face to face with God, and his quest, which has now become spiritual, has blessed the lives of all he's touched.

The God undercurrents running through Into The Wild lend Penn's story a portentousness which obscures its charm. (The scene where McCandless climbs a mountain and screams in unison with nature is oddly reminiscent of DeCaprio's King of the World moment). The story is interesting enough without the need for the syrup.

In another way, Into The Wild is Penn doing a Herzog movie. McCandless is stepbrother to Timothy Tredwell. At one point a bear saunters past him, perhaps on its way to devouring Tim, passing up the tramp's skin and bones. At another, McCandless drags a boat, in this case a canoe, up a mountain, a la Fitzcarraldo. Penn appears to be aspiring to the purism of a Herzog epic. The film has the same scale, the same episodic narrative structure as a grand Herzog opus. And yet - it never has the roughness. It looks pretty. Hirsch is no Kinski. He's a puppy of a saint, all gentle love and good vibes. Even in his death throes he looks like he could have been the Ralph Lauren model that his alter-ego, spotted in an LA bar, might be.

These contradictions swim around Penn's enjoyable movie. In spite of the film and its hero's love of solitude, expressed through a rousing soundtrack and some sweeping Alaskan cinematography by Eric Gautier, it's Alexander Supertramp's encounters with the William Carlos William's underbelly of American society that bring the film to life and lend meaning to his experiences, something the narrative suggests he belatedly came to understand. For all its inclinations to be a serious investigation (in the shadow of Tolstoy and Thoreau), of the meaning of man in modern society, the tension between nature and civilisation - in the end Into The Wild works most effectively as a gently comedic character piece, in the vein of Fielding or Cervantes. Penn has an actor's eye for characterisation, from the crazy Danes to the police ranger on the phone who tells the hero he can't paddle his canoe.

The final sequence pays homage to these characters, acknowledging their importance within the hero's life but also within the narrative. The dilemma between the societal impulse and the quest to find the natural man is apparent in both film and character. Is it appropriate to end a film which has been exploring the values of nature and solitude with a gargantuan helicopter shot, redolent of the extremes of societal technology? Whilst one's instinct might be to say - no way - in practice it has a peculiar effectiveness. The film wants to have its cake and eat it, and maybe that works. Like McCandless, it critiques American society for its venal divisions and destructive urge to wealth; but also praises it for its family values and can-do freedoms. Perhaps this is the true contradiction at the heart of McCandless's twin journeys to Alaska and death. In which case Penn has done a fine job in rendering its authenticity: helicopter shots, god complex and all.