Sunday, 27 January 2008

no country for old men (d. the coen brothers)

Cormac McCarthy functions in strange territory. Somewhere between Jack London (think of the passage with the wolf at the opening of The Crossing) and Tolstoy. A writer who appears to be able to locate the epic and the spiritual within timeless narratives, but someone whose work retains the popular touch. Furthermore, many of his books occupy the strange territory between the apparent order of the United States and the described lawlessness of Mexico. Drifters bleed across the border (literally in the case of No Country...), driven from the locatable security of the first world to the anonymous safety of the dangerous third. In a country which tends to turn its back on the disparity between its wealth and the poverty of its neighbour, McCarthy is an exception. He knows where the line is and he writes as though he knows what it means to cross it. In his latest book, The Road, the whole world has crossed the line, so much so it's eradicated. The border protects no-one anymore, on either side.

No Country for Old Men is far from his best work. It features a remarkable villain with an unpronounceable name, Anton Chigurh, a great deal of acutely observed violence, and some of McCarthy's least cryptic down-home Texan wisdom. The book's ending is surprising in so far that the writer seems to lose interest in his central narrative, which ends abruptly, and the final section heads off at a tangent to offer a valedictory portrait of Ed Tom Bell, the sheriff who's retiring in the face of the mounting warfare caused by the drugs trade.

The Coen Brothers have adapted the book with a high degree of fidelity. McCarthy's sparse and precise dialogue is lifted wholesale. The film relies on the shifts in the book's narrative for surprise. In an early scene, when Chigurh strangles a cop with his handcuffs on the floor, the camera holds on the scuff marks left on the lino after the struggle, at which point it seems as though the adaptation is going to pay dividends in heightening detail and nuance. Whilst it's true that the Coen bros eye for detail complements McCarthy's precision, it is ultimately less rewarding than might have been anticipated, as the brothers retreat into conservative story telling. They successfully extract the tension from the book, but unfortunately they've selected a text which runs out of tension some time before it reaches its conclusion.

The film has been a critical success. Speaking to someone who didn't know the book, you can see the way in which McCarthy's narrative, in particular the characterisation of Chigurh, might seem surprising and fresh on first acquaintance. Yet one can't help feeling that what the critics are doing are awarding points for competence, rather than cinematic flair. The Coen brothers seem, of late, to have lost their appetite for visual panache and narrative whimsy which made them so compelling when they were at their peak. Perhaps damaged by occasional failures, they've resorted to delivering high-quality, user-friendly product. McCarthy's novel is just about powerful enough in itself to warrant the reverential treatment, but the marriage though functional and effective, is passionless. The film gives glimpses of McCarthy's power, as well as reminders of the Coens' rare talent, but it ultimately fails to take the viewer into the heart of the strange territory both occupy when they are at their most beguiling.

Friday, 18 January 2008

alice in the cities [d wenders]

1974 seems like a long time ago. We know that's where we are from the opening frames when Rudiger Vogler's bell bottoms hone into view beneath the boardwalk. His character, Phil Winter, dresses like an embodiment of a time which has become the territory of kitsch memorial. There are other hints of the way the world has changed: is that a woman smoking behind the protagonists on the Pan-Am flight from New York to Amsterdam? And the in-car phone used by the policeman on the ferry at the end, a slightly lugubrious plot device in such a free-wheeling film, looks curious and unlikely.

Phil Winter spends the first twenty minutes of the film drifting around the United States, taking photos. He's supposed to be writing an article, but the 'images' swallow him up, as he explains to his editor. In one of the few scenes of the film inveighed with any tension, he visits an old girlfriend in New York, looking for a bed for the night, and she throws him out, telling him he's only there to tell her his stories, and he's only doing this to prove to himself that they might be real, the same reason he's taken the photos. Edda Kochl's remarkable cameo as the 'friend' opens the door to another movie Wenders chose not to write, perhaps like the article that Winter's writing and of which we only catch a glimpse. The unwritten film would be the one in which the lead character's neurasthenia is explored and revealed. (There are hints in the film that Winter is an alter-ego for Wenders himself, not least when an announcement is made at Amsterdam airport for 'Mr Wenders' - and for a moment we in the audience think this must be for Mr Winter. Winter's name also seems like an obvious pun on a psychological state.)

However, Wenders chooses not to go down this route. Instead he explores the margins of Winter's condition. The film may be called Alice in the Cities, but it is really about Winter's sense of alienation and drift. (When he goes to see a Chuck Berry concert, the song Wenders' chooses to use is - Driving along in my automobile/ No particular place to go...) Alice in some ways offers the loner a sense of selfhood which nothing else in the vastness of America or Europe has done. Much as he might complain about being stuck with her, and although he says, on occasion, exasperated, do you not think I've got better things to do? - It's clear that he doesn't. In a mutable world, Phil needs something to hang on to, and Alice offers him a hook.

In this sense then, perhaps, 1974 is not quite as distant as the bell-bottoms would suggest. Part of the success and cachet of Alice in the Cities may well have been, at the time, the modernity it embodied, the way in which it suggested the path the future would follow. The film opens with a shot of a plane, going we know not where. The shot pans down to reveal Winter on the beach, taking polaroids. The film ends with a sweeping helicopter shot, panning from Phil and Alice up over the Rhine (strangely reminiscent of the closing shot of Into the Wild). Since the film was made, we have entered the era of globalisation, expanding migration, ever-increasing rootlessness. The solid houses of the Ruhrgebeit, an old man informs Phil, are being demolished. In their place will be built flats and smaller houses (the like of which my parents' once lived in in Essen).

Which finally leads us to Alice, who is nine when the film takes place, and would be in her early forties now. In constructing the film's narrative, Wenders decided that Phil needed a foil to his blankness, someone to offer shape to a character he was reluctant to excavate beyond the image. (For the first twenty minutes of the film, the character of Phil barely speaks, mainly reading signs in his pidgeon English. We never learn about Winter's past or why he ended up in America or even what kind of articles the journalist usually writes). Besides the effectiveness of having a charismatic child character fronting his film, the beauty of playing Alice against Phil is that it means Phil never has to explain anything. Rather than exploring the character from the inside, we slowly piece his personality together from the outside. This is shown through the way he interacts with his companion, sometimes affectionate, sometimes irritable, always learning more about himself in the process. And the reason he feels so at home with Alice, the child, is that she has so much in common with him. She too enjoys drifting, feels herself to be rootless, has no particular sense of place. As comfortable in New York as Oberhausen, Alice possesses an aura of world weary modernity, which is as pertinent now as it must have seemed then. She's nine years old and she's already seen it all.

Alice in the Cities is a picaresque movie, of detail and incident. The only thing I could remember from my previous viewing of it, two decades ago, was the modernistic Wuppertal transport system. It is neither gripping nor taught. It's a movie with no particular place to go. Which engenders the paradox that it goes all over the place, going nowhere. When we leave Alice and Phil on the train to Munich, it seems unlikely that this will actually prove to be their final destination. Who knows where they eventually ended up.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

I'm Not There (dir Todd Haynes)

It's several weeks since I frittered away another afternoon in the build-up to Christmas with Haynes' take on the biopic in the depths of Soho. My memories of the movie are already splintered, erratic, imprecise.

Which could be exactly what they're supposed to be. The conceit at the heart of the film, that Dylan is played by half a dozen different actors, is an adventurous hook. Intellectually, it's an effective vantage point. No biopic can capture the complete essence of the star it portrays, so to acknowledge the fiction, and explore it, is a bold but strangely sensible decision.

Haynes knows he's scoring rock 'n roll points by casting a black kid or an australian actress as the legend. The Blanchett scenes ultimately seemed overblown, in the vein of Velvet Goldmine; whilst the Franklin scenes strived for and just about achieved the right level of winsome charm. Every viewer is going to walk away with their own favourite from the assorted Dylan selection; and every fan is likely to find one of the incarnations more convincing than the others. The conceit is liable to be as effective as it is counter-productive - there were some Dylans I was waiting to see more of, and others I could have done without.

All of which is part of the game Haynes is playing with the viewer. The only trouble with all this is the knowingness of the game's author. When Dylan is knowing, it is within the context of an audience which has travelled his journey with him - he's earned his right to tell it like it is. Haynes doesn't yet have that authority, no matter how fine a filmmaker he might be. We end up participating in his Godardian jeux d'esprit, without quite knowing what we're going to get out of it, or whether it's worth our while. Unlike Dylan's songs, there never seems to be any real body behind the film's games, or anything at stake. When Dylan sings: 'It was gravity that pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart', the line is endowed with the power of someone who sounds like they've been to that place we all believe we've been to at some point.

At no point does Haynes connect with his audience in the same way. As a result his film is entertaining but rarely compelling, and another that suffers by comparison with the voice it's paying homage to.

Having said which, the memories are now as splintered as the movie itself; and I did love the Black Panther scene.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (dir. Cristian Mungiu)

By 'eck it's grim up North. Or out East, in this instance. Mungiu's tale is one of austere miserabilsm, which clearly caught the consciences of the pampered Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme D'Or.

This fact is stressed in the trailer, when a thespian voice declaims the film's Cannes victory. Mungiu is part of the new Romanian cinema boom. His film, which describes the circumstances of an abortion, is cleverly set in a world which almost seems like it might be contemporary, but is actually set in the last days of the Ceausescu tyranny. It's a world where everything is a hassle, and everyone's on the make. Trying to do something as simple as book a hotel room becomes a trial, with the hotel staff acting like they have a mandate from the Politburo to piss everyone off.

Mungiu establishes this world with a sharp eyed camera, which follows Otilia (played with a survivor's verve by Anamaria Marinca) as she goes about trying to help her friend Gaby, who is seeking the abortion. Otilia evades the bus conductors and deals with the hotel staff. She collects the creepy abortionist, Bebe, and does what needs to be done to ensure that the abortion goes ahead.

Bebe is a borderline psychopath, and Vlad Ivanov plays him with an understated menace. It's after he leaves that the film seems to lose direction, unsure whether it's in the genre of psychological horror, as the trailer suggests, or gritty social realism. It plumps more for the latter, with the discarded foetus lying on a bathroom floor acting as a visceral money shot. But even this image looks like it could belong to another genre. Mungiu has seeded various plot twists which are all red herrings - the knife; the missing ID papers etc. The audience's greatest fear is what will happen when Bebe returns, but Mungiu shies away from this as he explores Odilia's dark night of the soul on the streets of a relentlessly menacing but ultimately harmless Bucharest.

Mungiu's skill as a filmmaker is not in doubt. His ability to capture the nuances of social interaction is surgical, notably in the scenes between Odilia and her out-of-his-depth boyfriend. He lets the camera roll to generate a high level of tension in the Bebe scenes, and has no fear of inflicting merciless realism on his audience in the abortion scene. However, the red herrings, rather than adding to the story, in the end get in the way. Odilia's last line to the friend who's dragged her through a night of hell feels like a soft soap pay off. We've been taken to some bleak places, but nothing like as bleak as we'd feared.

Perhaps this is what the Cannes jury appreciated - Mungiu's ultimate good taste. In contrast to a film like Cargo 200, we come away from 4 Months... grateful that our society is supposedly more tender than this bleak vision of Bucharest, but hardly alienated by what we've seen. Mungiu's vision is harsh but never deranged. It represents a clinical, observational eye which mirrors the one we like to think we possess, when we stir ourselves enough to rise from the primordial soup of our materialist lives. The ultimate appeal of the film is the way it triggers our own better natures to engage with the screen, which leaves the cinema goer feeling enlightened by the misery, rather than disturbed by it. As such 4 Months... thrives on the strengths and ultimately succumbs to the weaknesses of social realism, a 'realism' all the more palatable for being set in a long-lost world of monstrous tyranny.