Archive for January, 2011
Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko is structured like La Commare Seca and Vagabond: a friendless, destitute woman is found dead in a remote location, and in flashback we learn how she got there. But where Bertolucci and Varda deliberately withheld a lot of information and their narratives took some major jumps forward, we see Matsuko’s life in deep and continuous detail from the time she’s about 10 until her death at 53. Things start going seriously wrong for her in her 20s, when an act of kindness backfires on her and she’s fired from her teaching job; from there on it’s like Great Expectations in reverse, with a steady descent through a series of abusive relationships, prostitution, murder, a prison term, etc., through all of which she holds onto her dreams for happiness as if she’s in a Joan Crawford movie rather than a seriously effed up life. The plotting drips with brilliance: small details are planted which find a payoff only half an hour down the road; we view some events from dual perspectives with differing feelings about them each time they occur; and a couple of the twists and turns caught me far off my guard. It’s a large and very moving canvas, part musical, part women’s picture, part bummer fairy-tale.
That’s all the good stuff, but there’s a trickier side, too. While the writing and acting are in a restrained, quasi-naturalistic groove, Memories of Matsuko is shot and cut like a Long Island iced tea, equal parts music video, Disney cartoon, Japanese game-show, MGM musical, and the silliest scene Darren Aronofsky ever shot, all thrown into a blender and mixed into an eye-gouging, ass-shaking knockout drink. The almost constant soundtrack also comes from everywhere: Gershwin, hip-hop, classical, lots and lots of J-pop, and I think I even heard a little Streisand in there. Even more headachey, only a couple of scenes have a normal palette; the vast majority of the film has been digitally tweaked to a lurid nighttime blue, bright lime green, or scorching purple, while some of the sets—most notably a carnival residing on the roof of a huge department store—were clearly parented by a team of programmers. This onslaught of hyperbolic geegaws had me in petit mal seizures for at least the first half hour or so, and I’d love to see how a straight version of it would play, but I’m glad I hung in there. Matsuko’s a rich experience, even if I never sit through it again.
I’m also looking forward to Nakashima’s newest movie, Confessions. They’ve come up with a pip of a trailer for it:
About three weeks ago, while looking for a new direction to stomp around in, I picked up Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours on a roll of the dice—and was flattened by it. Since then I’ve seen six more of his features—he made ten in all, plus a handful of shorts—and I can only feel a little sick for discovering him at such a late date. The truth is he’s never gotten much notice here: he isn’t mentioned at all, for instance, in Kael’s 5,001 Nights at the Movies. But Pialat’s work is so good, and crystallizes so many ideas which I’ve entertained over the years, that I feel like I’ve just heard that a fellow named William Faulkner once existed.
Before I go on, here’s a quick recap of what I’ve seen so far:
L’enfance nue (1968) – A ten-year old orphan wreaks havoc on two foster households. Decidedly not cute or adorable, François makes the kid in The 400 Blows look like Opie Taylor, and one misdeed in particular will have a lot of viewers running to the closest rerun of Friends just as fast as they can get there. Get past that, though, and you’ll find a lot to treasure in both the kid and his story.
Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together) (1972) – Jean Yanne is a married filmmaker who’s winding up a six-year long love affair with younger woman Marlène Jobert. It’s turned into a hideously painful relationship, physically abusive at times but mostly “just” emotionally so, with Yanne downloading some monstrously cruel tirades in Jobert’s direction. When the film begins the relationship is already over, but the news hasn’t caught up to the couple yet—they go right on fucking, swimming, eating, dancing, talking. It’s autobiographical, apparently rigorously so—Jobert says in one of the bonus interviews that Pialat was upset that the costumer couldn’t find a bikini like the one his old girlfriend wore—and Pialat’s trademark elliptical style leads to some intentional laughs about the eternal recurrence that goes on within troubled and even not so troubled relationships. About an hour into it Jobert finally starts landing some punches of her own, spelling out for Yanne all the ways he’s made her life a misery, and in a raging cri de coeur vows to never see him again. A-a-nd cut…to Yanne getting out of his car, where a beaming Jobert is waiting for him. (True to the nature of affairs, much of the film takes place in the front seat of Yanne’s car.)
Passe ton bac d’abord (Graduate First… a/k/a Pass the Bac First…) (1979) – You’ve heard it before: a group of bored high-school seniors hang out in cafés, get high, have sex, and fret about their unpromising futures. Somewhat slight compared to his other movies, it’s still a happily mussed work, and in 81 short minutes you come to care an awful lot about these kids. (Most of them were amateurs recruited from a nearby high school.)
Loulou (1980) – Isabelle Huppert is married to an advertising exec who gives her the good life; Gerard Depardieu is an ex-con whose sex drive is always in high gear. The two meet by chance and fall into an affair that’s like shooting whitewater rapids. With a storyline that’s impossible to predict and both stars giving performances to be cherished, it may be my favorite of them all. Just thinking about its final shot—a picture of pure ruined beauty—gives me the chills.
À nos amours (1983) – A young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire, in her debut) begins running on a treadmill of shallow sexual affairs; her sex life is, to some never exactly defined extent, the fallout from a tug-of-war with her family for control of her life. Her mother is a fading rose who resents the young beauty sharing her household; her brother is a baby-faced bully with distinctly unbrotherly feelings for his sister; and her father—significantly, played by Pialat himself—is an underachiever whose tangled feelings for his daughter are pushing her into the arms of strangers. I describe the movie sounding quite certain of what I’m saying; in reality it’s a much more mysterious, and touching, affair. It’s also a stone-cold masterpiece.
Police (1985) – A genre flick, but delivered with the Pialat touch. Depardieu is a hard-ass Paris detective chasing a gang of Arab drug dealers; when Sophie Marceau is caught up in one of his raids, the two find themselves falling into a relationship.
Van Gogh (1991) – The last few months of the painter’s life, notable for its treatment of Vincent as a human being rather than a one-eared dingbat genius. It’s long and occasionally taxing, but parts of it could’ve gone on forever for all I cared. In particular, a scene in a Parisian whorehouse lasts a good 20 minutes, in which time Pialat’s camera moves freely from room to room, dropping in first on Vincent, then on Theo, then on the anonymous customers and hookers taking part in a riotous cancan. Pialat’s at his best in these rambling sequences; the backyard luncheon in Loulou is even better.
Pialat is sometimes called “the French Cassavetes”, but the comparison is a slippery one, and perhaps even unfair to Pialat: his formidable dramatic ability and absolute impatience with filler led him to snip shots off the second they stopped communicating, while Cassavetes, whose respect for the Aristotelian unities often ran amok on him, held onto his shots from A to Z even when the meat of them was located only at D, L, and W. Pialat’s epiphanies come more often, with greater resonance and clarity, and capture a richer, wider spectrum of life than Cassavetes’ over-focused eye.
Pialat originally trained to be an artist, and you can see it in his work, but not in the usual painterly way. It influenced him structurally more than visually: his films communicate through isolated elements which carefully balance each other out, while his compositions, though exact and often striking, are rarely “pretty”. He belongs to the humanist tradition running from Renoir through the Dardenne brothers, and even more than the Italian neorealists his characters’ identities amount to a kind of existential soup in which all the normal signifiers of class, religion, and relationships are subordinated to physical behavior.
Pialat had as unerring a sense of what a makes a scene as anyone who’s ever yelled “Action!” Of the seven films, I found my attention wandering only in parts of the 159-minute Van Gogh. Generally, though, it’s impossible to lose interest in his stories because they’ve been ruthlessly gutted of anything that doesn’t provide illumination. That includes meaningless establishing or transitional shots (people getting out of cars, for instance), inter-scene dissolves which destroy the air of verisimilitude, prefabricated declamatory speeches, extraneous actor business, as well as the artificial and coy dialog most movies use as the building blocks of conflict.
The first time we see Depardieu and Huppert as a couple in Loulou—a movie which is about their adulterous liaison—they’re already dancing together in a smoky nightclub, and that normally mandatory stop in relationship movies, the meet-cute, which would have occurred a mere blink in time earlier, has been entirely dispensed with. Again and again Pialat’s characters are seen lashing out in one shot and fully reconciled in the next, in narrative jumps which force the viewer to forget about the story and remain focused on the people at hand; in this sense the memory of one’s own traumas provides a more reliable guide through the films than anything in their screenplays. It’s a style perfectly suited to characters with conflicting emotional drives, such as the elderly foster parents in L’enfance nue who both love and are terrorized by the little boy whose monstrous side no amount of tenderness can reach. Pialat’s uncondescending attitude towards teenagers—born perhaps from his own untamed personality—allowed him to depict them as people in their own right, with the significance of their problems undiminished by their lack of legal standing. In his eyes, adolescence requires no special treatment, not even in relationship to sex. It’s simply another stop on the continuum of the human experience.
Pialat’s first short, L’amour existe (available on the Criterion release of L’enfance nue) is a masterful look at life in the French suburbs; its wistful, doleful tone evokes both Night and Fog and Blood of the Beasts, and it’s more beautifully shot than either of those great films. It appeared in 1960, but it was only through François Truffaut’s intervention almost 10 years later that Pialat came to direct his first feature, when he was already past 40. An infamously temperamental man, he frightened, angered and intimidated his co-workers as a regular part of his method. In scenes calling for physical violence, his actors rained blows upon each other with a ferocity that takes your breath away. He discovered Sandrine Bonnaire when she accompanied her sister to an audition for À nos amours; after casting the young chaperone in the starring role (leading to what must’ve been an interesting night in the Bonnaire household), he extracted an astonishingly complex performance from young Sandrine while falling in love with her on the side. (He was 58 at the time; she, 16.) Gerard Depardieu wouldn’t speak to him for a year after finishing Loulou, then returned to the fold with a vengeance, becoming one of the director’s closest friends and shooting three more films for him. The climactic moment of À nos amours was nothing less than a great trick the director played on his own cast (you can read the shock on their faces), and when the audience whistled at him—that is, booed him—at Cannes one year, he raised his fist and hurled insults back at the room.
Add to all this his often dour social commentary and his generous helpings of extremely casual nudity, and it’s safe to say Pialat isn’t for everyone. You can probably add elitism to the list of charges, too. Work of this quality absolutely spoils me for au courant exercises like The Social Network, the anthropological fantasias of Winter’s Bone, or the trendy sitcom taxidermy of The Kids Are Alright; with their tailored quips, predictable rhythms, and compartmentalized chunks of action, each unlockable by a simpleton’s code of scrutable meaning, they look like toddlers taking baby-steps by comparison. In the end Pialat’s films represent what a cinema unfettered by the censors and low expectations might look like—a brave new world that looks exactly like our own.
What the world needs now
Is love, sweet lo—
[sound of needle being jerked off record]
Robert Altman’s California Split capped one of the most remarkable five-year runs any director has ever had. Altman had already made six movies in that span, three of which—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us—had been masterpieces, and a fourth the Zeitgeist-defining M*A*S*H. All of these films were innovative exercises that reenergized worn-out genres by bending, but not breaking, their rules; despite radical differences in setting and style each of them flaunted a formal sophistication that gave artistic ballast to their seemingly tossed-off, often raunchy contents. Meanwhile, the huge canvas of Altman’s next film, Nashville, and its even larger subject—nothing less than “America”—would lead to its being taken for his “masterpiece” in a critical spasm that mistook ambitiousness for actual accomplishment. California Split has none of these claims to fame, and yet upon its arrival it felt like—it still feels like—the quintessential Altman movie.
Compared to the wide grasp of Nashville, it’s about nothing—nothing at all: just a pair of gamblers, and some stuff that happens to them. And that’s it. Though it’s familiar with every inch of the compulsive gambler’s mentality (Altman himself was a heavy gambler for years), it doesn’t bother dressing up its insights as formal observations; there’s no lesson to take away from California Split, and even less of a moral. Even that opium dream called McCabe & Mrs. Miller grows increasingly dependent on its plot as it progresses, but California Split is about as untethered from meaning as a film can be while still cohering as a narrative. At its conclusion its protagonists are left hanging at what may be (but probably isn’t) a pivotal moment in their lives, but we’re not really asked to consider whether they’re at a true crossroads. Instead of building to a single climactic point like a pyramid, the movie’s episodes are tied together like a string of Christmas lights, each colorful but each equally luminous, so that the sudden appearance of a frightening stickup artist receives no more emphasis than a frazzled call-girl splashing too much milk on her Fruit Loops.
Hot on the heels of Hawkeye Pierce and John McCabe, Charlie Waters and Bill Denny join Altman’s pantheon of emotionally stunted heroes. Charlie (Elliot Gould) wears loud shirts and has a louder mouth, and he’s filled with native wisdom—who else knows that shaving cream makes a bruise feel better? Bill (George Segal) is a magazine writer on the fast track to nowhere; affable but rudderless he watches the world at a remove, certain that a place awaits him in it but unsure where it is. Barely more than overgrown boys, Charlie and Bill play the ponies, sit in on some poker games, frequent a lot of watering holes, and get in a fight or two, but mostly they just talk. (Charlie especially has a lot to say.) Their lives are conspicuously incomplete by traditional standards: Bill is divorced and seems to know no one other than Charlie, while Charlie, despite housing with a couple of hookers who adore him, appears to have transcended sex altogether. Both too loose and too tight at the same time, bored to death by the straight life and absolute slaves to superstition, they don’t feel alive unless they’ve got a few bucks riding on some meaningless wager. (Their drunken bet to see which of them can name the Seven Dwarfs—“Here come seven like a Gatling gun”—comes to naught when they get lost in their memories of Dumbo.) After their random meeting we follow the zigzag, why-not course of their lives through a series of incidents which make us feel like we’ve laid our fingertips on the pulse of real life.
California Split is like a Cassavetes film with a more pronounced funnybone; not many movies this focused and “real” are also of such bracing good cheer. Despite being set in an American limbo—the bleached and barren spaces of racetrack concourses and used-car lots, the eternal twilight of coffee shops and casinos—California Split hums with a gambler’s energy and restless optimism. If Altman’s attitude towards acting might be summed up as “Behave, don’t act,” he gives us Bill and Charlie’s lives unburdened by any of the moral baggage other directors would have felt obligated to lay on them. A movie that’s almost entirely devoted to atmosphere—both in terms of its characters’ emotional terrain and the Dewar’s-rocks settings they thrive in—that’s California Split.
Most of the movie sways to the rhythms of smoky lounge standards, perhaps the goofily bouncy “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” that Bill and Charlie take up as their theme song. (Altman’s editor was Lou Lombardo, who’d previously cut McCabe and The Long Goodbye, as well as that seminal editing textbook known as The Wild Bunch. Some men leave their mark on the world.) But the movie takes a stark emotional downturn occasioned by the one thing resembling a plot point in California Split: Bill’s debt to his bookie, Spark. Trying to raise the money in an all-night poker game only wipes him out, leaving him stumbling into the glare of a L.A. sunrise, and the ensuing coffee-shop scene is an exercise in desperation as Spark effortlessly dismantles his bullshit. The threat Spark poses to Bill’s confidence—the one weapon a gambler relies on more than his luck—is even larger than the threat to his well-being, so it’s a good thing when that picture of conviction, Charlie Waters, reappears fresh from beating some teenagers out of their pocket-money in a pickup game of basketball. (The sight of Charlie pulling up his sweat socks is almost as satisfying as the moment when John McCabe proves that he indeed carries a derringer.) Bill hocks his last few possessions and sets off for a high-stakes poker game in Reno, with Charlie in tow as much talisman as partner. California Split comes to a delirious boil during Bill’s long winning streak in a Nevada casino, a 20-minute outburst of fractured yet free-flowing filmmaking.
People who know Segal and Gould from Just Shoot Me! or Friends are going to be especially surprised by California Split. Gould was busy rehabilitating a career he’d all but destroyed through egotism and overexposure after his successes in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and M*A*S*H, and the first step in his recovery had been playing Philip Marlowe as an accomplished monologist in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But there his mumbled soliloquies were for self-amusement only; Charlie Waters’ logorrhea is intended for the world to hear. An incorrigible optimist (“I’d like a thousand dollars’ worth of credit,” he tells a casino cashier before finally settling for, “Tell you what, just give me a roll of nickels”), Charlie wanders through the movie firing off salvos of questions, complaints and bits of trivia that keep all deeper thoughts safely at bay. With his unkempt hair, Hawaiian shirts, and (for the latter part of the film) a large bandage over his nose, he exudes a wonderful casualness which toggles back and forth with surprising cloudbursts of serious-as-a-heart-attack sobriety. George Segal gave so many fine performances in movie after movie during the ’60s and early ’70s, but as Bill Denny he mostly maintains a melancholy watchfulness until Bill’s hot streak, when he stitches together a seamless emotional arc—from wariness to manic glee to soul-weary heaviness—as all hell is breaking loose around him.
A lot of things help make California Split a special movie, but the biggest one might be its bit players and extras. The biggest cast names after Segal and Gould belong to Ann Prentiss and a couple of Altman’s stock players (including a not-yet-famous Jeff Goldblum), but beyond these special cases Altman scorned the practice of using proximate “types” and instead went for originals, filling the corners of his movie with the lived-in faces of real gamblers and ex-addicts from Synanon. (The movie’s writer, Joseph Walsh, brings his refined spookiness to the part of Sparkie; his brother Ed plays Lou, the skuzzy troglodyte who becomes Charlie’s recurring nemesis.) For long stretches Altman pays as much attention to these anonymous faces as he does his stars, bringing them close enough to us that we can smell the cigarettes on their breath, and by using an eight-track recorder he was able to cherry-pick the highlights of these veterans’ table talk—a technological first. The result plants us right in the middle of Charlie and Bill’s world, until we feel like we’re bumping elbows with its cardsharks and slatternly barflies.
Too many people think of Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue as a gimmick or joke nowadays; earlier this year the Academy had Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep pretend to step on each other’s lines before giving him a there-there Oscar because it didn’t know how else to approach him. But Altman, like Renoir and Ford before him, has always been about people, and catching the particularities of their speech and behavior on film. As Bill Denny is just setting out on his big night of winning, he notices that the plate on his blackjack dealer’s vest carries the same name—“Barbara”—of a series of women who’ve been sprinkled along his path throughout the movie. Recognizing it as a good sign he exchanges a smile with the woman, and their affectionate, knowing, slightly tired faces hint at the mysteries of the world; it’s an irreducible moment, practically a living exemplar of William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.” It’s exactly the type of gesture—luxurious, utterly useless, but alive and generous to its core—that makes Altman’s films breathe as they do. The industry has always suffered from philistine producers and the egos of its superstars, but the big thing holding back American movies is that they aren’t more like California Split.
The Social Network isn’t really my thing, but it basically came down to 90 slick minutes followed by 30 minutes I couldn’t have cared less about. (And much of that last half hour—the raid on the party, those scenes with the junior associate—is simply bad.) The speed and polish are remarkable, but as in Zodiac and Fight Club they’re a smoke screen covering a lot of wispy, shallow content. One thing Fincher’s movies can do, though, is create a fine melancholic hum, and this one’s no exception; it also makes you feel au courant just by watching it despite its sitcom level sense of humor. I kept waiting for Zuckerberg’s motives to deepen beyond his girlfriend dumping him, but damn if that isn’t the point it keeps returning to, and exactly where it winds up—a “Rosebud”. I’d love to know how representative Sorkin and Fincher think their version of Zuckerberg is—if they see him as a stand-in for the isolated post-Internet human, which is plausible considering the numbing hubbub the major characters exist in, or as just a modern version of all the poor little rich boys who gain the world but lose their souls that are dotted through our books and movies. I think we all know how deeply down inside himself a jilted nerd can reach—Jesus, nowadays we see it on a near hourly basis—so what’s that leave? Would it have been so against the grain of things to give us a scene showing how Zuckerberg talks to his parents and, perhaps more tellingly, they to him?
About three months ago my sister sent me a link to one of Saul Friedman’s posts on The Huffington Post and asked “Do you believe he’s still alive?” Saul was a good friend of my mom’s when she was working for LBJ’s poverty program in Houston in the mid ’60s ; he used to come to our house and we used to go to his all the time. (He was married and had a family.) He was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle then, and he was always warm and funny, he had a lot of great stories about the Freedom Riders and he was friends with King, he had a huge library, etc., etc.—in short he was just the kind of guy kids should be exposed to as often as possible. When my sis sent me the link I just kind of said “Huh”, but today I emailed him, identifying myself as the skinny 9 year old who was Merry Block’s son. Just now I got a reply from his daughter, who I would’ve known but don’t remember, saying that he died of stomach cancer on Xmas Eve “but he would have loved hearing from you.”
As Kathy would say, “ACK!!!”
So right at the end of the day today my boss and I were tying up a couple loose ends just before he left when the head of our HR department came by and my boss said (jokingly) “You better be good or I’ll tell Scott about your performance”, and before I knew it the following words were coming out of my mouth: “What do you mean, my ‘performance’? Are you saying there’s something wrong with my fuck-stick?” That brought Scott to a screeching halt, and both of them stood staring at me as I told them about Bad Santa, and that this was just adult humor—you know, for us adults—a comment which, of course, also sailed over their heads. Anyway, everything’s cool, but I’m seriously thinking of giving up movies for a while.