Archive | Film Matters

Half Nelson

Somehow I missed Half Nelson at both Sundance and in critics’ screenings. It’s not an easy picture, neither in terms of subject — an otherwise over-earnest Brooklyn junior high school teacher (Ryan Gosling) buys crack from the same neighborhood element threatening his students’ welfare — nor execution, which loops around the characters’ intentions and actions like a never-swept spiral staircase. But it’s worthy, in no small part because of Gosling’s strong, understated performance and the incredible generosity of his pubescent costar, Shareeka Epps, who plays the student who’s onto his coke problem partly because she’s already submerged in the perils of that world.

That Epps has already developed her chops enough to bestow generosity upon her fellow actors speaks volumes about her tremendous talent; she resorts to none of the tricks most young actors pass off as acting: no flat, unmitigated stare; no mugging. She watches instead, with eyebrows that punctuate a whole scene singlehandedly and a big grin that you wish her character had opportunity to flash more. But as Dre, the daughter of a single MTA worker (Karen Chilton) rueful about her daughter’s isolation but too mired in scraping together her bare necessities to otherwise nurture her, Epps is more of a badass who terrorizes the biggest thug in the schoolyard yet still weeps over her brother in prison, and over her teacher’s terrible folly. She is intact, in other words, which partly stems from bright lights like her smart teacher who ignores the prescribed school curriculum to teach his students critical thought — to think beyond the black-and-whites literally and figuratively prescribed by their neighborhood, their media. Their whole world, in other words.

Here’s where the film falls out, for though moralizing would do no good in a film invested on every level in the greys of life, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that the predicament of the student preyed upon by drug dealer is equal to that of the teacher buying from that dealer. It’s hard to forgive those particular trespasses in an adult entrusted with the education of teens who receive very little other support — and though we eventually sit through an evening with his boozy, liberal (with all the true-lefties’ attendant negative associations to that term) family that sheds light on his strain of inner turbulence, it ain’t hardly enough.

It’s an explanation, though, if not an excuse, and that’s all that this small, quiet triumph seeks to offer. To its credit. I’m grateful I finally did surrender to its sleepy, sad stupor.

The Scoop on Hollow Wood

It’s been a long time since I bothered to see a Woody Allen film on a big screen — longer than I’ve posted on this blog, even. And in general Woody Allen has always been a topic I’ve avoided for what I consider two exceptionally valid reasons:

1. Allen’s movies, churned out at an ever-increasingly feverish rate, have devolved into mere dissociation devices from his utterly disturbing life. And I resent playing audience to emotional resistance-as-art—which is why I also yawn at the redundantly pathological works of David Lynch, who once proclaimed that he discontinued therapy when he realized it would change his art. Yes, yes, neurosis provides the backbone of most great art, but as a starting-point rather than as a place to permanently malinger. After Husbands and Wives, the gloriously cinema verite Dear John in Special 3-D 20-20 Hindsight that he filmed presumably right before he passive-aggressively let his partner discover nude pics he’d taken of her daughter, I’ve always contended that Mr. Konisberg lost his footing. Since then, he has only clocked in shoddy rationalizations of artistic narcissism (Hollywood Ending, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, Everyone Says I Love You); doggedly light, me-thinks-he-protests-too-much contrivances (The Jade Dragon); and lethal cocktails mixed from both (Celebrity, Melinda and Melinda, in which he dragged his characters-are-mere-marionettes conceit down to a whole new low).
2. Physically, he is a dead ringer for my dad. I may fancy myself more Jungian than Freudian, but any discussion of Allen’s creepy sexuality (which seemed that of a dirty old codger even back in the ‘60s) sends this broad running for the psychoanalytic, psychotropic hills, blood flowing copiously from my eyes. Like, in a Woody Allen movie or something.

But there’s something burning in the air, and I do believe it is Hollow Wood. At a cineblogala the other night, I found myself launching into Allen with a renewed vigor. A few days later The Looker was kind enough to supply me with Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s brilliant Woody autopsy (not available online, alas). And then, during this last hell-hath-no-fury heatwave I actually plunked down a sawbuck to catch the, ugh, Scoop — drawn by the curiously new tone of its critical reception (even sharp-toothed Times critic Manohla Dargis described it as “oddly appealing”); by how tarot cards played a leading role along with hotter-than-the-Fourth-of-July Hugh Wolfmanjack; and by assurances that Woody had demoted himself, finally, from a leading man to a sidekick whose sexual lusts have been supplanted by heartburn.

Even at 90 minutes, Woody’s latest bogs, but I must report that I dig it anyway. Like last winter’s vastly overrated Match Point (crazy that its highest praise was how un-Woody it was), it’s based in London — though, this time he stars American actors and costars British actors who, blessedly, don’t speak Allenese. (Nothing more inadvertently funny than Jonathan Rhys Meyer whining in a posh British accent, “Mooother, you know that’s her emotional Achilles heel….”). The new backdrop liberates Allen to realistically represent class dynamics for the first time since he himself started making real cashish. He’s neutered himself enough so that I can finally stomach him, although his brand of hand-wringing still looks suspiciously like self-molestation. And Dargis is right; Allen may not be Side Effects funny here, but he’s looser in his skin, not only as a writer/director (he remains too derivative to merit the term auteur) but as a performer no longer hindered by the existentialism and compensatory cheeriness of yore.

As the Great Splendini, an American magician, Allen’s greatest trick may be his stage patter: vintage Wood strained through All That Jazz-era Ben Vereen cheesecloth. Early in the film, he regales his audience with the old Manhattan chesnut “You’ve been a sincere sensation” and then pulls out of his aging tuchus ye olde “You’re incredible humans. I feel great love.” He’s a little wizard, all hopeless eyes and clownish hand-flailing and head-tilting, whose eyebrows waggle into many forms of punctuation behind the trademark glasses that dwarf his now-wizened face — not unlike the robot he aped in a Sleeper many eons ago. With his limbs flapping in billowing layers of plaid sportsjackets and Hawaiian shirts, he’s a shrimp scampi who can’t resist laying card tricks on unsuspecting uppercrustaceans (forgive my lapse into Shellfish). Finally, he has reprised his original shtick — the superficial wisecracker less troubled by the fate of the world than by how he can pull one over on it.

Except now that he’s not trying to get down girls’ pants, he’s free to expose the soft underbelly of that sizeable, cantankerous wit: a fuddy-duddy sensibility that’s not subversive so much as classically conservative. Allen’s legendary narcissism is such that he takes umbrage with whatever trespasses outside of his comfort zone, be they jocks, bean sprouts, EST, cocaine, shopping malls, strong emotions, spirituality, or, mothers, or, now, Scarlett Johansson’s blowsy sexuality.

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:

Filmmakers like Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati differ critically from Allen in the degree to which they express their conflict between narcissism and self-hatred in relation to their comic personae….They usually maintain enough distance from their own characters to allow audiences to have a critical perspective on them.… Allen, by contrast, is too close to Woody to allow us this detachment; his task is to seduce us into sharing his character’s confusions and ambivalences without being able to sort them out. ….There is a lack of ironic distance on his characters, and if [his films] genuinely attack self-interest, [they are] seriously handicapped by being unable to see beyond it. Allen’s problem is both coping and scoring — and he is more concerned with scoring than coping at the end of the day.

Until recently, I believed Allen’s films only dipped into that abject shallowness when his life took on a drama that overshadowed anything his films could ever approach. God knows as a teenager I worshipped such mid-70s and 80s works as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors as wry homages to the havoc inevitably wreaked by human desire. Indeed, they are widely upheld as his richest, most emotionally resonant works. But now that I’m (roughly) the same age as these films’ characters, I recognize them as the obsessed, overly cerebral, arrested development cases that they are; as such lily-livered self-rationalizers that they actually render him a relative, if relativist, martyr. Which is, of course, the point — however unintentional. If writer/director Neil Labute sacrifices the plausibility of his characters to his misanthropy, Woody has always drowned his creations in Narcissus’ kiddie pool.

And Woody’s plotting, especially in already-established genres like mysteries or crimes of passion that don’t allow much wiggle room, suffers radically from that same narcissistic inability to see past his navel or outside his own ass. Any machinations requiring more than Alvy Singer-style fumblings — be they third acts, legitimate motives and true suspense — elude him as they’d also require that all-elusive big picture that would shrink his own self down to a mere cog. In fact, if any truly philosophical or truly intellectual dilemma has ever really fueled his work, it was really another just another variant of his narcissism: what Rosenbaum refers to as his “compulsive morbidity,” as evidenced in everything from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters. The ultimate sign of a selfish person may be a blinding obsession with the extinction of that self.

I’ll take it a step further: Allen’s moral and philosophical investigations amounted mostly to him struggling to sort out if God truly existed — and if he were a punishing sort. From Crimes and Misdemeanors all the way to Husbands and Wives, the question was not so much whether transgression was morally reprehensible as whether it was mortally punished by a vengeful God. Once mannerly Martin Landeau as doctor gets away with murdering his wife, he experiences nary a bad dream. Once erudite Michael Caine as businessman gets away with fucking his wife’s sister, he settles back into domestic harmony.

Woody resolved that dilemma in Husbands, when his alter-ego, a writing professor, opted out of shtupping his student in the eecummings rain only to have his wife leave him for another (taller) man anyway. Suppressing your basest impulses hardly reaps rewards unto themselves, he seemed to suggest, and soon after, he took the leap of unfaith. And when no bolt of lightening struck him down him (and even the media forgave him surprisingly quickly), he jumped his own personal shark as well. God doesn’t exist, he had determined, and so there no longer existed a reason to strive to be a good person to please him. No reason to refrain from fucking your stepdaughter. No reason to pursue self-improvement.

He quit analysis and declared instead: “The heart wants what it wants.” But having taken the leap and survived, having not been felled by a taboo of Oedipal proportions, his films lost the one artistic tension that had fueled them. He had made his bed and no longer feared lying in it eternally. The problem: How can you reinvent your work if you’re no longer courting change? How do you make intriguing art when you’re travelling in the denoument of your own life’s dramatic arc?

Judging from the ensuing films, he grounded himself on that one for a while. No only did his growth as an artist completely halt, but his acknowledgement of the basic passage of time, as well. He continued to cast himself against gorgeous 20- and 30something women, and though New York grew ever more culturally complex and financially stratified, his characters remained white 30something artist types who listened to Bach and, naturally, Louis Armstrong (though there ain’t nothing wrong with Louis!) and lurked in cavernous, well-appointed flats. And every other picture completely mimicked without improvement an already-existing genre, whether it be music mockumentary (Sweet Lowdown), Hollywood musical (Everyone Says I Love You) and Old men Take the Money and Run Small Time Crooks, a new form of metamovie, in which he limply ripped himself off.

But Scoop heralds a new Woody era, in which the Woody persona finally reverts to its rightful place in his cinematic universe: a largely irrelevant, Sleeper-era borscht-belt court jester sidelining the main event, just out to make’em laugh, make’em laugh without any underlying existential angst or divorced-dad self-pity. Casting the fulsome 21-year-old Johansson has a lot to do with that. Though she frequently costars with significantly older men, something about the sensuality of her full-lipped, lingering baby fat highlights the creepiness of their desire — so much so that 70something Allen has finally capitulated to the role of a pseudo fatherly advisor, though he grouses about it bitterly all along the way and luxuriates in the joke that he’s hardly decent papa material.

As Sondra, a journalism student keen on cracking the story of the century with help from a recently deceased ghost and good old Splendini, Scarlett has shed her normally flattened demeanor. And it turns out Scarlett animated is terrifying. Braying in entire paragraphs and windmilling her limbs every which way, she is positively Ethel Mermanized, an overeager dork who fucks often but without much skill or any neurosis. Hey, as Woody himself has been known to say, 80 percent of life is just showing up. And it is actually quite fun to watch her barrel right over his protestations and nasty little digs (her fingers, they’re stubby! She can’t swim, she’s not buoyant!) rather than transmogrify into a Woodette, as even his most formidable leading ladies normally do. In fact, from a brilliantly cut set of scenes, in which she matter-of-factly shrugs off fucking a musician for an interview she doesn’t even land, Scarlett as Sondra establishes a sexuality Woody could never relate to but as a filmmaker, finally, does not judge. Splendini does, but his very assignation is that of a walking anachronism. It’s a new millennium, Woody is acknowledging, and he’s just an old man dancing on its grave.

Of course, he still treats such plot necessities as dramatic structure and tension largely as nuisances; I barely understood or even cared who Scoop’s murderer was or how he was caught. But though Allen may not have entirely transcended his narcissism, or at least his limited abilities to execute a real whodunit, he’s come to terms with all of it.

And that’s what distinguishes Scoop most. Allen as filmmkaker no longer fears or is ashamed by his own insignificance. At the end of the film, he blithely offs a Splendini rushing to save Sondra (though she hardly needs saving), and the world, or even film, scarcely ends. Rather, its characters take his demise in stride with nary a pause — exactly what would have sent Alvy Singer into paroxysms into despair.

The film ends with Splendini riding a slow boat to nowhere, literally cheating Death with his nifty deck of cards, and literally skimming the surface, just as he should. Yes, Allen seems to be saying, he doesn’t change. But the world around him does — women change, technology changes, New York changes, and his own body changes — and he now accepts his increasingly limited relevance. After all, there really is no fool like an old fool. If his classic joke was, “I’ve always been two with Nature,” finally, finally good old manchild Wood has become one with his own.

Pauline Kael, Film Criticism’s Good Mommy

Perhaps around the time that New Yorker critic David Denby published “My Life as a Paulette,” in which he described how the late film critic first mentored him and then wrote him off as “not really a writer,” I lost my taste for Pauline Kael. Not because of her dismissal of Denby — if I’ve learned anything, it’s that film critics backbite each other worse than mosquitos in a swamp — but because the piece brought home how she spawned the monotone dominating contemporary film criticism. It wasn’t her fault necessarily, though some reports suggest she encouraged great flattery from her adherents. But the plainspoken chattiness that was her trademark has congealed into a sometimes ugly glibness when attempted by the many critics who’ve either taken cues from her or, perhaps, reacted against her. Once upon a time a review would be about whether or not the reviewer recommended the film — a simple, even simplistic, goal but a nonetheless honorable one. These days, a review still may serve that purpose, but too often it engages in a variation of the following dialogue: Q. Would you fuck it?” A. Ah, but you just did, my friend. Fair or not, I named Kael as the godmother of all that glibness.

Then the other night, I watched Altman’s Three Women and fell knee-deep under its spell: the illusive, elusive dichotomies that Lynch should be so lucky as to achieve; the mirrors found in pools and windows and fishtanks and dumb lugs; the spot-on performances from Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duval. At the film’s end I still lacked much insight into its characters or plot or even intentions. Yet I was utterly hooked — deeply uncharacteristic for a girl who tends to dismiss such opaqueness as mere smoke and mirrors. It was a moment when I longed for a teacher or a good review to illuminate me or even frame the context of the conversation, and I realized that more than anyone I longed for Kael and her smart-cookie two cents.

For the first time in a dog’s age I cracked open one of her review collections: I Lost It at the Movies. And, though I never found her essay on Three Women (I did suss out that he’d improvised the film from a dream), in my search I fell knee-deep under her spell as well. In a way, Altman and Kael’s tone is of a piece: marked by a high-minded chattiness that never borders on pretension even when it misses the mark. What distinguishes Kael’s writing, even after all these years and even in this era of critical oversaturation, is that she’s writing for someone who’s already seen the movie.

She never lost what they call in yogic circles “beginner’s mind,” always demonstrating a generosity more typical of viewers who’ve paid for a sitter and consumed a heady cocktail of popcorn and smashing trailers before the feature. It’s why her now-infamous second person voice doesn’t grate nearly as much as when others slather it on: she really was talking to us. Her reviews were written as if we were all cradling cups of tea around a kitchen table after having seen the movie togther, savoring the pleasure of the experience with a satisfying post-mortem. That’s why, even when she didn’t like a film in question, her prose never devolved into vitriol.

Her musings on the ’60s and ’70s classics are best remembered; how (like Sontag, like Warhol) she relished jop and pazz and dispensed briskly with such dichotomies as high and low culture that other critics still drew upon with a straight face. But even when reviewing a mostly mediocre batch, like the films in Movie Love, her collection of 1989-1991 reviews, she drew upon her significant body of knowledge to excavate positives — a lingering shot, a director’s development, a new actor’s performance. And when she did find fault, she did so cheerily, with no loser-in-a-black-cape fury fueling her assessments.

It’s been said that Kael didn’t much cotton to female Paulettes in her life, but none of that Adrienne Rich “exceptional woman” pathology colored her prose. She admired actresses as well as actors, and pointed out without rancor where sexism sank plots by not fleshing out female characters. She was funny, but only in service of more precisely nailing her point rather than gilding her reputation. She was smart but in a matter-of-fact, unshowy way that suggested she’d be a smart observer of any human milieu. Her calm, confiding tone inspired both confidence — and confidences — in each of us, and she used her good name to cultivate filmmakers and critics and an American audience whom she recognized as worth cultivating.

Only Kael tapped into the basic psychology of film-viewing; that there, in that temperature-regulated womb of a movie theater complete with a light flickering at the end of the tunnel, we each, alone but together, shoulder to shoulder, are silently reborn again and again. She remained both open-hearted and open-eyed to the end, a too-rare combination these days in any field. She may have been the progentitor of contemporary film criticism but more than that (I smell test tubes in that word, anyway), she was, and remains, its good mommy.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy