Friday, 10 June 2011

beginners (w&d mike mills) & ballast (w&d lance hammer)

My week has been bookended by Brixtonians taking me to the movies. It began with Ballast, Hammer's seemingly low-budget, cinema verite investigation of low-rent lives in the modern Deep South, and concluded, (if the week is deemed a short one) with Mills' LA tale of loss and love. The contrast between the two films seems beguiling; both made by would-be indie US filmmakers, one seemingly outside the system (even though he has made his money out of doing artwork on the Batman franchise), the other seemingly within the system (even though his first film was an 'indie' hit.) The likelihood is that Mills and Hammer come from similar places and perhaps their movies have more in common than at first appears.

Ballast might well be termed moody. It's a sparse telling of the tale of a disfunctional family. The film opens when Lawrence, a lugubrious, large-boned black man, shoots himself after the suicide of his twin brother. Thereafter, he recovers, and his brother's son, James, enters his life. James' mother and father weren't talking and James has grown up thinking the worse of his absentee father, feelings he transfers to his uncle, whom he initially confronts with the gun he's stolen from Lawrence, the same gun Lawrence used to shoot himself. As the film unwinds, James, Lawrence and James's mother, Marlee, work out a way of living together. The piece is shrewdly edited, with the pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together as the audience comes to terms with the connections. It's also well shot by Lol Crawley, who lends an overcast pallor to proceedings. Under the influence of the Dardennes brothers, the film wears its earnestness on its sleeve. Still, it's not your standard US fare, and the film's real strength is its storytelling, as it weaves its story out of very little material into something that succeeds in holding the audience's attention. The intention seems to be to convey something approximating normality and make it watchable: to deliver the opposite of the Hollywood dream.

Beginners, on the other hand, is set in a lush-looking LA, with two fetching leading actors, whose lives seem by and large quite far removed from the normal. Oliver is mourning the loss of his father, who after the death of his wife came out and acquired a new life with a sparky Latino boyfriend. He then meets Anna, who occupies one of those infuriating non-parts: a French actress who lives between LA and NY, never seems to do anything, and has some problems with her dad, who phones her up and tells her he wants to kill himself. They run around LA and fall in and out of love and back again. It's all fairly vacuous, and once again would seem to have a strong European influence. This is post-Soderbergh, post-Godard, with McGregor and Laurent as Belmondo and Seberg. As with most imitations, its pallid. The film uses the image of its stars to convey its message: Ewan looks unhappy, therefore he must be; Melanie looks tortured, therefore she must be. There's nothing really going on, and once the love affair has been established, it has nowhere to go except to wait for Ewan's gay dad to pop his clogs, which of course he does, towards the end. Disappointingly for a director who has made his name making independent cinema, there doesn't seem to be any real ambition beyond presenting images for the eyes which seem to be alluring. There are plenty of them, and so there should be, but if you ever wanted proof that film has to be about more than just pretty pictures, Beginners will do it for you, largely because it seems to be trying so hard to convince its audience that it possesses a profundity it clearly doesn't actually own.

However, in keeping with Ballast, Beginners has made a virtue of its editing and its cinematography, as well as throwing in some cute animation for good measure. Clearly, Beginners can indulge all of this because that's all it aspires to be: well produced. Ballast on the other hand is trying to describe the reality of living in the US in a more 'authentic' way. It attempts to demystify the film process: longer takes, little fancy lighting (one scene which is over-lit, when Lawrence makes a pass at Marlee at the kitchen window, stands out like a sore thumb) and a concerted effort not to use the machinations of cinema to glamourise the images the film is capturing. Of course, it can't quite succeed: the opening shot, for example, of James sending a flock of birds into the sky has a dirty beauty Andrea Arnold would have been proud of.

The trouble with Hammer's approach is that only the cinema tragics went to see his film (which in spite of its low-budget vibe still cost $700 000 according to IMDB). The stars should guarantee Mills' effort some kind of audience, even if in commercial terms the issues of being gay and death might seem 'risky'. There doesn't seem to be much space in Anglo-Saxon culture for a cinema which seeks to use the medium as an agency of investigation or reflection of its society. Ballast makes a worthy effort, but Beginners shows up the shallowness of an industry which doesn't seem to know what it's there for, on anything other than a commercial basis.

Which is hardly a radical conclusion and suggests the whole premise of this joint review has revealed very little except for if you have a spare hour and a half and need to make the choice between the two films, choose Ballast. It's less fluffy, but it's got more body.

No comments: