Biking to Work: a review of “Barbara” (2012)

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Some films are squirt guns that shoot something onto the front of your viewfinder and distress you.  These are the unsubtle ones.  Others are a body of water like a lake or pond that you can wade into, or a summer shower that spreads over you.  Barbara is the latter kind of film.

Barbara is a striking and ambitious young doctor from Berlin living out a purgatorial existence in an out-of the way agricultural province of Communist East Germany in the early eighties.  She has a mind for cutting-edge research and the pace of the metropolis, but occupies this more pedestrian post because “the farmers and craftsmen paid for your education, and they need you here.”  She suffers frequent invasions of privacy under the humorless watch of local Stasi agent Klaus Schutz, who suspects she’s planning an escape.  His suspicions are justified.

I found the small town where she works agreeably depopulated.  Some of my favorite films (Valhalla Rising, A Single Man) have quiet, still settings with sparse habitation, that stand in stark relief to the few characters, leaving them alone with their choices and accentuating the gravity of their words.  Barbara bicycles down sandy paths to the hospital, past a forest, through a town, along a line of trees buffeted by brine winds from a North Sea beach just over the hills that will feature prominently in her coming bid for freedom.

Her only companion is chief surgeon Andre, a big, bearded, soft-spoken lad obviously smitten with Barbara from the first.  He makes various attempts at establishing friendly relations with her, which she rebuffs as she knows he has orders from the capital to gain her trust and report on her.  But Andre- literate, witty, idiosyncratic, with his personal warmth and affinity for Rembrandt and books about rural doctors and talent for cooking- is not a good communist.  He is an individual, like Barbara, and she comes to see this- to see him.

A profound scene occurs about midway through when Barbara has a clandestine rendezvous at a hotel with her West German lover who informs her that she won’t have to work on the other side because he makes enough money for them both. While he is away at a meeting, a prostitute wanders through the connecting door to Barbara’s room.  She is spending the night with another Westerner, and is starstruck by his promises to marry her and a gift- a jewelry catalogue.  As the girl pores over the pages of trinkets wide-eyed, Barbara does her best to feign interest.

From where we stand, atop the rubble of the Berlin Wall and Fukuyama’s End of History and Friedman’s Flat World, it may be hard at first blush to get into the dilemma.  We know that a few short years later, the Iron Curtain will be rolled back.  But Barbara doesn’t.  She sees no end to the system she labors under. Much is at stake- not only her dreams and ambitions, but those of a patient of hers, a pregnant girl who repeatedly escapes from a nearby forced labor camp, only to end up in a sickbed, wanting hope and something better for her child someday.

Barbara is a woman and a professional torn between places, ideologies, and people. No one is a cardboard cutout, even Klaus the Stasi agent, whose dying wife Andre treats on the side. All are victims of a system that simultaneously oppresses them and shapes the possibility space for their choices, in part making them who they are.  I recommend Barbara for its depth, its perspicacity, its subtlety, its resonance.

Mad Men Lite: a review of “Are You Here” (2013)

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Watching Matthew Weiner’s film “Are You Here” is a lot like watching his television shows “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.”  Same snappy, insightful dialogue, same morally ambiguous characters, same metaphorically fraught images that linger after the credits roll.  His work is a meditation on the trajectory of affluent, comfortable, godless Americans, and on the doubts that arise after they get everything they thought they wanted. Where does the cowboy go after he rides off into the sunset?  Wiener articulates a question whose answer is an abyss.

Weiner’s ability to throw air quotes around the American project, to paint affluence as a curse, is both mesmerizing and unsettling.  He’s not the first to cover this ground, but he’s perfected the recipe and figured out how to mass produce it.  Weiner is the McDonald’s of American self-critique, and I don’t doubt that he is aware of the ironies inherent.

“Are You Here” covers the mid-life crisis of a friendship between Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a philandering alcoholic Annapolis weatherman, and Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a paranoid schizophrenic inhabiting a cloud of marijuana and his own delusions of grandeur.  After his estranged father dies, Ben inherits a substantial estate, but the will is contested by his childless, materialistic sister Terry (Amy Poehler).  Ben has promised a substantial sum to Steve, who has been keeping him relatively stable (and well-stocked with pot) for years, and plans to turn his father’s farm, set deep in the heart of Amish Lancaster County, into a nonprofit called the “Omega Society,” a “beacon to that Babylon out there,” devoted to spiritual enlightenment and going back to the land. Galifianakis’ portrayal of the would-be messiah provides some much-needed color to an otherwise uneventful script.

Weiner ultimately tosses the ball back to the audience, leaving the tough questions up to us.  Is Terry a grasping, frigid control freak bent on blocking Ben from the realization of his high-minded goals, or a concerned sister, pragmatically looking out for the continued financial stability of her self-destructive sibling? Is Steve a calculating manipulator concerned only for his piece of the action, or a true friend intent on seeing his oldest compatriot remain himself, in the face of pressures from both his sister and his young, widowed hippie-dippie stepmother?  Is Ben himself a genius, or a basket case? A good deal of the film’s poignancy derives from Ben’s eventual decision to (spoiler alert) go on medication, and whether his resulting lucidity and abandonment of manic spiritualism and vegetarianism constitutes a loss of self.

Steve has a memorable quote: “That’s the thing about friendship – it’s a lot rarer than love; there’s nothing in it for anybody.”  I’ll replicate below the haunting final image of the film.

Ben has ceded control of his father’s country grocery to his sister Terry, who has turned it into a Wal-Mart Style superstore (insuring her brother a comfortable income), and moved into a nondescript, upscale apartment complex, shaving his beard, eating salmon, and working out.  During a rainstorm, Ben finds himself trapped under the awning of a supermarket, and helps a boy onto a coin-operated horse, behind which he sees an Amish horse-and-buggy clomping through the rain.  The real horse trots away, and we are left with the steady grind of the horse-machine.  Roll credits.

There is a lot in “Are You Here.” It is well worth a watch.

a review of Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” (2014)

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Lately I’ve been immersing myself in a milieu loosely known as mumblecore- a broad and intentionally shallow world of claustrophobic close-ups, improvised dialogue, and drifting life paths. The previous post lists some highlights.

These films document that nebulous period between graduation from college and the formation of families, which in recent decades has taken the form of a prolonged pseudo-adolescence typified by emotional immaturity, shaky or nonexistent financial prospects, a nomadic lifestyle, and a theatrical, ironic detachment from reality. This state can last into one’s forties (see Ben Stiller’s character in Baumbach’s “Greenberg” (2010).  The prime directors involved are the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus), Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Margot at the Wedding), and Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday). Other excellent pieces that can be shoehorned into this category include “The One I Love” (2014), about a couple (Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass) that spend a week at an isolated retreat to mend their fraying relationship, and “It’s a Disaster” (2012), a black comedy about a yuppie dinner party interrupted by news of a dirty bomb exploding downtown.

These films are fun to watch because they break the Hollywood plot mold.  There are no easy answers, and things are not tied up in a bow at the end.  The dialogue is naturalistic.  The shots are impromptu.  They address the concerns of  real-ish people, in somewhat realistic circumstances.  But some have argued that they are also tedious and sloppy. So the term ‘mumblecore’ was tossed and the directors polished their pieces in order to appeal to a larger audience.  But the spirit persists.  The budgets are bigger, but that delicious abyss still looms.

“Listen Up Philip” concerns insufferable, verbally abusive, rising literary star Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), his long-suffering photographer girlfriend Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), and his toxic-personality mentor, aging novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Philip and Ike share the infamous writers’ traits of alcoholism and a borderline antisocial disregard for the feelings of others.  Their main hobby appears to be manipulating the women around them (Philip’s girlfriend, Ike’s daughter) into painful situations and stirring up anger, frustration, guilt, pity, in order to stimulate their own creative urges.  Their sordid, self-imposed personal dilemmas play out against the opposing backdrops of Manhattan- crowded bars, cramped brownstones, and Upstate New York- Ike’s cabin retreat, the college where Philip accepts a semester gig teaching intro to writing.

What may sound like an exercise in tedium and loathing is saved by Philip’s frigid wit. There are more than a handful of good zingers and dressings-down to be savored.  The film is also redeemed by Elisabeth Moss’s eminently sympathetic and complex Ashley, caught in that hard place between loving someone and knowing they are gradually destroying you.

I give “Listen Up Philip” four melodicas out of five.

sleep, wake, sleep: Dark City (1998)

 

Since I was very young, my dreams have been dominated by seascapes and cityscapes, beaches, blue seas, and imposing, concrete edifices that I later learned were called functionalist or brutalist. This is why Alex Proyas’ Dark City appealed to me, first on an aesthetic level.  The film takes place in a noirish urban expanse cast in perpetual night, a symphony of shadows and walls, stifling streets, alleys, and catacomb-like apartments that serve as symbols of the various characters’ isolated and alienated lives, lived alone-together, cut off from others and, as is later revealed, their own pasts.  The city folds back on itself and, like on a Pac-Man screen, those who try to exit it find themselves right back on the opposite side of the map.  One detects the influence of British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard, whose short stories often take place in such realms.

The protagonist, John Murdoch.  The city’s eclectic and anachronistic design incorporates Art Deco touches, like this automat.

 

Before analyzing the film (which will require me to discuss the full plot), I will offer a brief review.  From what Rotten Tomatoes tells me, Dark City has gotten a bit of a bad rap, and has been compared unfavorably with similar films, such as The Matrix.  I found Dark City more conceptually rich than The Matrix, and its art direction much more original and powerful.  Both films deal in dreams, but Dark City does a better job of conveying the feel of a human dream, its arresting visual power, its otherness and its ability to disturb and dislocate its subject. For the record, it also predates that much-lauded blockbuster by a year. Let’s commence with spoilers.

 

In Dark City, John Murdoch is one of many humans living a bleak existence on a disc-shaped prison realm floating in the nothingness of space.  They are the subjects of an experiment by a dying race of hive-minded parasitic beings who believe that, by playing mix and match with memories in the humans’ heads, they can discover the secret to human vitality and individuality- that, through experiments on the mind, they can discover and appropriate the soul.  At midnight each day, time stops, everyone is put to sleep, given new pasts and personalities, and they wake up in different places.  They live in a perpetual night.  One of the most chilling scenes is when John succeeds in convincing a detective, played by John Hurt, that something is awry.  He says: “When was the last time you remember it being light outside?  And I’m not talking about some distant memory- do you even remember yesterday?”

 

This struck me as a deeply profound scepticism- when I was only five or six years old, I would not want to sleep, because I felt that I woke up as a new person each day- that unconsciousness was a serious break, a kind of death.  I now love sleep, but is that a good thing?  Have I been fooled?

 

John Murdoch wakes up, because he has developed a mutation that allows him to harness the power of the alien machines driving the prison-city.  In the course of his journey of self-discovery, John discovers that his childhood memories of an idealized place called Shell Beach are just illusions.  That there is no real Shell Beach, no real home outside of a place in his mind.  This is not just a plot point, but a human point, and one that is cutting now more than ever, for us cosmopolitans, us globalists.  As a recent college graduate and someone who has done a lot of traveling, I have come to believe that home is not a place, but is composed of people.  If those people are dispersed geographically, there is no home.  We romanticize faraway places, but when we get there, they never feel quite how we imagined.  We try to return to the haunts of our own pasts, but when we go there they don’t feel right, for the people we knew have left. Where did I come from, where am I going?  We are phantoms, as unable to answer those questions for our individual lives as we are in the dark about our past and future as an animal species.  A few bones and ruins.  Mists and shadow behind us, shadow and mists before us.  And as for the present?  Even that feels like a dream.

 

The good news is that our protagonist does defeat those parasitic beings.  He finds the power within to banish them and take control of the prison-city, to change his reality, and in a sense free his fellow humans.  Not surprisingly, he chooses to transform the dreary city into the hoped-for place of his dreams: Shell Beach, and presumably to live out his life there with the woman he loves.  Their love persists through memory losses, so it is real- at least more real than anything else in their world.

 

The bad, or at best ambiguous news, is that of course Shell Beach is still just a collective illusion, albeit one propped up by powerful machines, and everyone is still trapped on this disc-world, floating in the abyss of deep space.  The movie’s mythos leaves the question of where the humans were abducted from, their true origin, unanswered, and in the end we learn that at least one of the parasitic beings- the one who possesses all of John’s fake memories- has survived.  The duality persists.  Evil has not been once and for all defeated, and truth has once again been shrouded over by a (well-meaning) lie, a kind of founding myth.  John Murdoch begins, in a way, right back where he started.

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: not a product of human intelligence

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is an unprecedented feat of sustainability.  It is composed wholly of post-consumer material- every scene, orchestra hit, line of dialogue, character, and shot has been used before, probably hundreds or even thousands of times. Like a McDonalds hamburger, it comes pre-digested, and all that is asked of you is that you receive it, take it in, and let it pass through you.  It’s the kind of thing I would expect an algorithm to churn out- no human could produce a sequence so systematically banal.

There are not many moving parts in this affront to that once thought-provoking intellectual property called the Planet of the Apes.  Chimps.  Humans.  They fight.  The audience is repeatedly bludgeoned with an anti-gun message so blatant and simplistic that I began to wonder if the project was backed by Michael Bloomberg.  That would be soothing if it were true. At least then there would be some larger explanation for why this thing made it past quality control.

So many saccharine shots, so many prolonged meaningful glances.  Perhaps the cameraman was a narcoleptic.  The chimp leader’s monosyllabic utterances were just painful.  This whole movie is a soppy mess.  It drips with a kind of aimless sentimentality that makes the viewer feel sticky afterward.  It’s bad.

A note to Hollywood vis-a-vis previews: blasting the bass until my skull vibrates will not make me more likely to spend money on the prefab nutriloaves you pass off as films.  Volume does not correlate to excitement.

sadism for the whole family: Home Alone (1990)

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For a brief time in my youth, one of my favorite films was Chris Columbus’s Home Alone, starring Macaulay Culkin.  It concerns Kevin McCallister, a neglected, precocious middle child in a bloated, prosperous suburban family, and his violent apotheosis as new master of the house and sadist-in-residence when his parents, in a holiday rush, forget about him and leave him alone in their sprawling house for a week. The antagonists are two bumbling cat burglars, Marv and Harry (played by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci), who, mistaking the house for empty, unwittingly enter a world of pain.  They soon find out that Kevin has booby-trapped every room, making instruments of torture out of seemingly innocuous appliances and home improvement hardware.  The eight-year-old, bullied by his siblings and ignored by his parents, at last finds an outlet for his stifled will to power.

 

Kevin, is utterly unaware of the danger he himself is in, and observes the various injuries the two men suffer, including massive head trauma, testicular bruising, electrocution, multi-story falls, second degree burns, and disfigurements with utter glee, intervening at times like a small, backstage imp to adjust a trap and increase their woe.  His goal is no doubt to eventually kill them both.  He fails, but nevertheless escapes and in the end is reunited with his family.  Marv and Harry are arrested and hospitalized in full-body casts.

 

The film’s comedy lies in the unmatched conflict between an eight-year-old boy and two adult criminals, and the boy’s unexpected victory.

 

Though looking back, I have to question what my young self saw in the whole thing.  What does it say about me, that I so enjoyed a piece of media that was, at its heart, a depiction of cruel acts done to human bodies, the sick power fantasy of a broken psyche?  It goes beyond slapstick and borders on sadism, and as an eight-year-old, I couldn’t get enough of it.  Why?  And more generally, why couldn’t America’s families get enough of it?  Home Alone-and its two even more brutal sequels-were blockbusters, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars each.

 

I posit that the preadolescent male figure of Kevin McCallister, who, when not engaged in torture, enjoys eating bowls of ice cream, ordering pizzas, and watching crime films on VHS, stands in for the family filmgoing demographic of late 20th century America.  Like him, they are characterized by a preoccupation with food and a visual obsession with violence that borders on the pornographic.  Like the boy in the empty house, they inhabit a sprawling and formless geography, suburbia, whose busy decour hides a terrifying void.  Like the abandoned son, they can only forget their dysfunction and marginalized state by viewing the suffering of others.  Xenophobic and paranoid, childish in their disconnection from reality yet jarringly precocious in their choice of hedonistic pleasures, the American family, like young Kevin, is a bit too eager to see the ‘bad guys,’ whoever they happen to be at the moment, ‘get theirs.’  The action they crave is their drug, the theater seats they occupy their shackles.  They – we – are only too happy to accept the insidious bondage of that shame-haunted breed of compulsive, the voyeur.

Adrift: a meditation upon “The New Year” (2010)

I had a spot of difficulty categorizing Brooklynite hipster director Brett Haley’s film The New Year.  It’s not a drama, for it lacks the proper structure, and besides is not terribly dramatic.  It’s not a coming-of-age film, for the characters, mid-to-late twentysomethings, have seen the threshold of adulthood come and go- all have jobs and some even have children.  It’s not a love triangle, for no one’s in love.  It’s not a ‘Slice of Life,’ for the characters are not living, but just passively persisting.  They’re passive friends, passive workers, passive agressives, passive romantics- upon finishing the film, one is hard pressed to give even a short list of meaningful actions taken by the characters.  Like boats adrift in an abandoned harbor, they occasionally bump into each other, but that’s often the extent of it- next scene!

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The setting is Pensacola, Florida, a post-British Petroleum Gulf Coast town, a sprawling retirement community whose population, like its beaches, is slowly, agonizingly, yet inexorably, eroding away.  In every sense that one can call to mind, it’s dying.  And the meager youth that subsists by servicing the aged residents faces social, developmental, and economic stagnation, and worse, isolation.  In order to drive this unfortunate set of realities home, director Haley gives us recurring bleak shots of unoccupied condo complexes, deserted shopping malls, roads with no cars on them.  The chips are out and the music’s playing, but no one’s at this party.

The set-up:  Sunny, a quiet bookworm, dropped out of college two years ago and returned home to care for her retired professor father, who’s dying of cancer.  She works at the counter of a dingy bowling alley, whose owner hasn’t been paying the bills and is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. Her boyfriend is an earnest children’s karate instructor, and her best friend is a spunky, assertive former classmate who has recently become engaged to the father of her child, a terse fellow in a ganster cap who works at Red Lobster and whose near exclusive response is,“Word.”  Sunny’s mind is blown when a former high school peer, Isaac, rides by her house on his old bicycle, returning from an unencouraging two-year stint as a New York stand-up comic.

So let’s populate this not-quite romantic triangle: Sunny, the bookworm bowling attendant, her karate instructor boyfriend, and a failed, decidedly un-funny stand-up comic (the central joke of his routine is that he’s a virgin, and can’t decide whether he wants to lose his virginity or not).  If this film were made twenty years ago, the stable boyfriend would perhaps have been a businessman, and the love interest would have been a dynamic bohemian type- a brilliant artist, or musician.  As it stands, we must feel sorry for our protagonist- it’s slim pickings at the boy buffet.

Although we mustn’t feel too bad, for Sonny herself isn’t a terribly sympathetic lead.  She coats all her conversations and emotions with an agonizing, cringe-inducing shellac of unclever irony, to the effect that all her words come off as half-hearted, insincere, cardboard-cutout.  Through Trieste Kelly Dunn’s subtle expressions and deft acting skills, we’re always vaguely aware that Sonny is distressed and internally conflicted, but all this is never articulated- we get the sense that even within herself, Sonny probably can’t bring this stuff to the surface.  We know she likes Isaac, and is ambivalent about her relationship with Neal (the karate guy), but the source of her ennui goes deeper than “boy troubles,” as Sonny’s father calls them.

Over the past few years, much ink has been spilt over what some call the ‘self-infantilization’ of the youth: the refusal or inability of contemporary twentysomethings to become adults in the traditional American sense- to find stable employment, form lasting relationships, accept responsibility, move out of their parents’ houses, etc.  To conjure the right image here, think of a stereotypical hipster: living in their parents’ basement, either unemployed or part-time employed, clad in Converse sneakers, ill-fitting pants and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, ambling about town carrying their prized possessions in a tiny Fjallraven-Kanken backpack and waxing eloquent about some indie bands you’ve never heard of, occasionally playing house at Goodwill by donning grown-up clothes.  An overgrown schoolchild, or at best a wayward teenager.  A lurid, absurd caricature- but such is today’s fashion.

The fate of Sonny and her friends is left up in the air.  The final scene takes place in the last moments of New Year’s Eve, with Sonny clutching the limp hand of her dying father as the hordes in Times Square chant the countdown. The symbolism is clear: the Baby Boomers are not long for this world, and there is no one to take their place once they depart.  Before the ball drops, the scene goes dark, and that’s it.  Roll credits.

Do our socially awkward, “How-do-I-even-react-to-that” heroes gain a measure of control over their meandering existences, or do they simply float along until some merciful disease or accident puts an end to what Sonny herself predicts will be “the long, miserable haul”? I would like to quote Bob Dylan and say that the answer is blowing in the wind, but for this film’s characters, there is neither literal nor metaphorical wind- and that seems to be the point.  These boy-men and girl-women are sailboats without motors, and the sea they sail is stagnant- the world has nowhere to blow them; they’re superfluous.

At least I can cross Pensacola off my list of places to visit.