“The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012)

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There’s something about Schenectady; it makes for good films. One that comes to mind is “Synecdoche, New York (2008),” in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director in the midst of a personal tailspin who deploys his newly-won MacArthur Fellowship grant in an unholy bid to undo the fourth wall, setting in motion a bizarre performance art project that metastasizes out of his control, enveloping the entire town, its myriad denizens, and finally the world.

Schenectady’s name means ‘beyond the pines’ in Mohawk. It was once the site of a number of small villages. Briefly overlapping with the Mohawk Nation’s regional tenure came corporate-colonial juggernaut New Amsterdam in the form of Arent van Curler, a Rensselaer cousin and manager of the family’s manor-estate patroonship.

It’s just the sort of place that would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story. Lovecraft, that master of generational decay, with his tales of degenerated Dutch aristocratic lines like that of the eccentric, voodoo-obsessed Brooklyn recluse Robert Suydam in ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ or the spectral Jan Martense, last of a doomed line of Catskills gentry done in by his own inbred cretin-relatives in ‘The Lurking Fear,’ would have felt at home in Schenectady’s claustrophobic, narrow streets of century-old wood houses moldering in the shadows of the oaks, requiem to a proud, long-vanished working class.

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Ben Mendelsohn as Robin van Der Zee, Luke’s mentor and business partner.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” grapples with eternal human motives like greed, jealousy, and love in Schenectady’s postindustrial shadow. Ryan Gosling is Luke, a motorcyclist carney, bank robber, and would-be father to a young boy he didn’t know he had. Eva Mendes is Romina, a waitress and young mother navigating two loves and the exigencies of her son’s needs. Bradley Cooper is Avery Cross, a law school grad turned local cop caught between ambition, a desire to fit in, an inclination toward justice, and his machiavellian father’s designs. Behind and about these characters looms the insidious corruption of the local police force, personified in a good-old-boy monstrosity played by Ray Liotta. The film ranges like a greek tragedy over themes of history, class, and fate, but the characters never lose their agency. Their lives are their own.

 The Place Beyond the Pines is a multigenerational, small-town epic that, like an old stone well, discloses its secrets gradually, as one peers further and further into its depths.

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Dredging the Thames for Primal Urges: the latter Hitchcock

I’ve been watching some of Alfred Hitchcock’s later films. Some of them play upon Cold War hysteria: Topaz (1969), about the entanglements of a French diplomat and a Cuban widow of the Revolution/ pro-Western spy leader in the months leading up to the Cuban missile crisis; and Torn Curtain (1966), about an American double-agent who defects to East Berlin to work on a project, cancelled by his own government, to build a defensive weapon so comprehensive that it would end the possibility of nuclear war.

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Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), professional matchmaker and ex-wife of the main suspect. Frenzy, 1972.

As someone who didn’t live through the Cold War, and with the benefit of perfect hindsight knowing that the wall would come down just a few product waves later, I found my horror somewhat impeded. Not to say anything against Hitchcock- he’s brilliant, and it is precisely because he is so good at pulling us in that I began to feel the ominous gravity of the situations portrayed.

I had to stop and take a moment to remind myself that, for the original audience, something was at stake here: Churchill’s words about an iron curtain still clanged in their ears, and they lived under what they were encouraged to believe was the imminent threat of nuclear destruction. Beyond the bulwark of NATO was a gaping abyss that was quickly swallowing up the rest of the world, filled with slack-jawed zombies who knew not the bliss of bombing down a highway in a boat of a car, hair blasted back, fast-food wrappers billowing across the embankment in one’s wake. Freedom like this could be blotted from the earth for good, and it would be gruel, barren streets, and concrete apartment blocks to the horizon for us all. And our fate hung, teetering, on the latest breakthrough by a physicist, or a few soft words exchanged by nameless figures in a smoke-filled room.

Louis CK talks about his trip to the Soviet Union just after the Wall fell:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRbeihB7c8w

 

Frenzy (1972) marks a return to Alfred Hitchcock’s home turf, both geographically and thematically: a psychopath is loose in London, and he has a penchant for delicate women. He’s called the Necktie Murderer. 1970s London, temporarily abandoned by luminous lucre like all major cities during an interval of suburbanization, looks appropriately sordid, a metro of close, malodorous exchange: grounded, smoky, sooty, embodied. Grocery clerks preside over heaps of vegetables in Covent Garden Market , cutpurses dodge bobbies, petty criminals brush by one another through alleys moist with the bated breath of the expiring British working class. An environment that Jack the Ripper would find most accommodating, I daresay.

We also get a glimpse of the New London, of brutalism, of the mobility of capital, of Le Corbusier’s soaring towers of steel and glass, sterile and functional, above the fray, when the main character and main suspect in the murders, roustabout bachelor Richard Blaney, goes on the lam in the company of his girlfriend barmaid Babs Milligan and pops off to the posh apartment of an old friend in the import-export business.

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Babs Milligan and her lover, Richard Blaney, on the run from the law. Frenzy, 1972.

Yes, it’s a tangled web or ball, rather a Gordian knot (or maybe a Windsor knot?) that Hitchcock has tied in this tale of necktie murders, that cuts across borders of class and conscience in the fractured mirror of a city between times and on the brink of massive transformation. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, some say. Perhaps we can chalk it all up to our endless human fascination with a few primal urges, and their power to upend our polite conventions.

On holiday: a review of The Lobster

the lobster

Films that are initially unsatisfying are often the ones that stick with me. The Lobster is that sort of film. In terms of plot, The Lobster is incomplete. It loses steam in the second half and ends on a cliffhanger, leaving the fate of the two protagonists in question. As with so many films that do this, I got the sense that the filmmakers just ran out of things to say, and tried to hide this with a Pee-wee Herman-style ‘I meant to do that.’

Visually, the film is a banquet. The setting, an isolated oceanside resort on the craggy barrens of southern Ireland, brings to mind turn-of-the-century sanatoriums for wealthy wastrels and neurotics. The grounds are pristine. The maids and wait staff are delightfully starched and proper; the decor- with victorian ferns, mahogany woodwork, and floral-patterned furniture- recalls a lost age.

Aurally, the film pursues my favorite course: a sparse soundtrack and strategically deployed silences.

In the world of The Lobster, couples are mandated, and being single is taboo. Single members are institutionalized in an isolated resort, and if they fail to find a new partner among the other denizens within 45 days, they are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild. We later find in the woods a group of escapees known as the loners, whom inmates are forced to hunt using tranquilizer rifles. The film was written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, and stars Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly.

The acting is bad, which I initially thought was strange because the cast is so talented. The characters are for the most part mercenary and unsympathetic. They do a lot of wide-eyed staring, and their words are stilted, uttered quickly and softly, like those of a timid child. They seem like young heirs and heiresses neglected by jet-setting parents, before being sent to finishing school. Social encounters are uncomfortable and unpredictable. The inmates don’t react properly, they don’t display emotions in the normal way. Conversations are brief and anemic, but brutally direct. This jarring awkwardness struck me as a bit much when I first saw the film, and I dismissed it as a bit of overwrought tryhard on the part of the creators, an unfortunate stylistic mishap.

Later, I saw an interview with Colin Farrell, and it became clear that this plays a role in the film’s meaning. He said, “The film does question…how easily we as a human race can become duped under the craftily designed power structures that are represented by governments and religions.” The director made the characters act badly, in order to make their ploys utterly transparent to us. The characters don’t say how they feel or act naturally. Their words and actions simply consist of whatever scripts they believe will get them what they want- whether that be companionship, or sex, or an alliance. A notable exception is John C. Reilly’s character, shown below, offering camaraderie to his fellow inmates.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYQE2cU37bQ

This almost-universal insincerity enforces barriers between the inmates, such that they can’t reach each other, and stagnate inside self-enforced prisons. They are totally alone. Even when Colin Farrell’s character and Rachel Weisz’s character fall in love, their relationship is disjointed. In order to avoid punishment by the Lonely Leader, they make up a secret language that involves gestures for things like “I love you more than anything in the world,” and we are struck with how inadequate the language is for what they wish to express. Are they even reaching each other? By their faces, we just can’t tell.

As an allegory, The Lobster is compelling. But the picture is unrealistic, in the sense that it overshoots on the bleakness scale. It leaves no room for natural human interaction, which happens all over the place, every day. We can be individuals and yet reach each other. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

Transparent: the theatrics of self in decadent times

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“In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.” -Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

The question of identity has taken on an importance that is unprecedented. How we choose to present and define ourselves, is, in a sense, all that is left to discuss. All political, cultural, religious, and ideological structures have been deconstructed and given a good dressing-down by the last three centuries of technological development. Somewhat surprisingly, these structures continue on, as a motley collection of disembodied exclamation points gesturing at nothing in particular, with no message much deeper than a desperate ‘I exist’: parties, genders, nationalities, ethnicities, and religions appear all the more vehement these days, perhaps as a way to compensate for their utter irrelevance in the face of a globalized economic order that makes all units, whether they be currencies or people, fungible, swappable, and disposable.

Most prominently in America, during the past forty years, the popular left has balkanized into a hodgepodge of solipsistic movements, each centered around some grouping of humans that is defined by the kind of oppression it suffered under the old order. This is identity politics, and, as the antithesis of the old order, it is disorderly, divisive, and self-defeating. It also happens to be a capitalist’s dream.

Henry Ford, while producing one of the first standardized products, the Model T, is said to have told customers, “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” In the world of identity politics, you can identify as anything you want, as long as it further alienates you from your fellows and doesn’t disturb the income distribution. The realms of art and public discourse have been engulfed by a cacophony of voices listening to themselves make noises about themselves. Transparent, Jill Soloway’s internet series, illustrates this brilliantly. Transparent and other shows like House of Cards are designed to be binge-watched in one sitting by a single viewer, ideally on a laptop while in bed. Quite an evolution from the gilded, communal movie palaces of a century ago.

Transparent’s protagonists are a family of media elites living in Los Angeles. They are Jewish, secular, and wealthy. They are postmodern and self-aware, almost to the point of paralysis. Each is on a personal quest to find out who they are, who they belong with, and how they want to live. Their intelligence, their money, and their honesty, the preconditions for their freedom, spell doom for their relationships with each other, with friends, with lovers. While violating the moral and sexual injunctions of tradition, and demonstrating a flippant self-centeredness that would have scandalized their forebears, they stolidly persist with the rituals of their Judaism- blessings at dinners, temple on holidays, apologizing on Yom Kippur- going through the motions with a bitter irony that borders on fatalism. They are well aware of how far they have fallen, as are we. But like many of the enlightened, their liberation from tradition leads them out of one Egypt and into another, a desert that is both profound and final: a slavery to their own changeable feelings and desires. The only promised land that can be hoped for is a momentary pleasure. And other people become just tools to reach that end.

The unwilling patriarch of the family, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is Mort Pfefferman, a mild-mannered and emotionally absent father who has cross-dressed his entire life and feels compelled in middle age to come out as Maura to his wife and adult children. His brusque wife Shelley, whose greatest ambition is to become president of the condo association and who babysits her grandchildren only because “it’s what all of my friends do,” seems devoted to playing up each of her children’s small tragedies as her own. Josh, a man-child and successful music producer, is surrounded by glamour and entranced by novelty, and yet is strangely drawn to traditionality and the totems of his Judaism, driven even to the point of getting a female rabbi pregnant. His indecisiveness and erratic emotions in adulthood may perhaps be traced to an early relationship with his babysitter, who still lives close by. The eldest daughter, Sarah, starts out the show with what appears to be a perfect life. She proceeds to turn it into a trainwreck, leaving her husband for her college lesbian lover, marrying that woman, and then backing out on her wedding night. The youngest daughter, Ali, has the most undefined sexuality and gender identity of the entire family, and is also the most detached. She is incessantly roving about, looking for new people to vampire off of, and is always talking about going to grad school, though she never quite manages it. Her closest friend Syd, played by Carrie Brownstein, is in love with her, and bears the tragic brunt of Ali’s stillborn personality. Ali is the logical conclusion of the family’s development: totally free, totally barren. She lives her life without commitment, an aging woman-girl in a garden of earthly delights, searching fruitlessly for something she can’t quite articulate.

Under these conditions, appearance takes on a centrality that would baffle people of other times. The characters are often depicted going through fanatical periods of binge-eating and binge-exercising. Bereft of the robust structures of family and work, these people are emotionally brittle. They define their self-worth wholly in terms of their physical attractiveness. Similarly, when children become undesirable or unlikely, or one just becomes alienated from one’s existing adult children, old age turns from a nuisance into a looming bane that may banish one to total isolation. So the characters are constantly on the hunt for their next sex partner, going to absurd measures to prolong their youth.

The most intriguing part of the show are flashbacks to 1930s Berlin, in which we see ancestors of the Pfefferman family, one of whom is a young trans woman (a counterpart to Maura), another a teen girl (a counterpart to Ali). This tantalizing glimpse into a decadent and permissive metropolis teetering on the edge of fascism suggests that the current state of the Pfeffermans is not sustainable. It adds to the narrative a sense of foreboding. It also suggests that this is not the first time we’ve been here, that there is a cycle to these things.

What I find beautiful about the show is the way it makes the characters’ problems seem real. The Pfeffermans are petty, but they are not vindictive. They set out with the best of intentions. We feel for these tragic people, who struggle mightily, and with a certain nobility, to fulfill two goals that they don’t realize are contradictory: to be free, and to belong. For all their cosmopolitan sensibility and wit, they are blind, like children wandering in a dark wood.a dark wood

A meditation on “Sicario” (2015)

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“The history of civilization is nothing more or less than the development of order.” -August Comte

“Order out of chaos.” -Old secret society motto

“Better an injustice than disorder.” -Goethe

“All good things on this earth flow into the city.” -Pericles of Athens

“He who’s not busy being born is busy dying.” -Bob Dylan

Like most of the films featured on this blog, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is about America. More specifically, it concerns the efforts of a waggish, wily government spook, played by Josh Brolin, to sew a little chaos, and weave a bit of order, along America’s southern border in the no-man’s land of Juarez, Mexico. He is joined by a soft-spoken mercenary, played by Benicio Del Toro, who undertakes this mission for his own opaque reasons. Central is the agonizing internal struggle of a young FBI attache, played by Emily Blunt, over whether their methods-and ultimately their motives-are sound.

The cinematography mimicks the gaze of a shellshocked bystander: tunnel vision sweeping sluggishly from detail to detail- someone’s shoes, a gun, the face of a sleeping man, the desert wastes scrolling past a jet window. The soundtrack is unsettlingly sparse: only atmospheric bass that is easily mistaken for the beating of your own heart. Both convey volumes by gesture and implication, leaving much space and time for the viewer to ponder the gravity of what he is witnessing. The descent into Juarez is reminiscent of Brueghel’s paintings of the Black Death.

* * *

Over the course of a few hundred years, tiny, militaristic, republican Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean, enveloping territories, resources, and peoples, bringing them under a single world-order. Where there had once been only endless, village-by-village butchery and the caprice of the local chief, now in every city was a Roman tax collector, a Roman court, a Roman bathhouse, and a Roman theater. The city personified its will, and its dizzying bureaucratic edifice, in a single man, the Caesar. Its offer was an ultimatum: Bow to Caesar, prosper in peace. Reject Caesar, and die by his metal.

But seemingly just as soon as Rome had actualized its wildest goal, conquering the farthest reaches of the known world, the tide reversed, and this youthful command would be whittled down, over the course of the next millennium, to the bargain of an aging manager: “I’ll pay your tribe to guard the border along the Danube,” and finally to the pathetic plea of a senile puppet: “Here’s one-and-a-half tons of gold, if you promise not to sack the capital again.” The Eastern Empire continued in this sad state for centuries before it was finally put out of its misery by the Muslim Turks in 1453. Citizenship, once restricted to the inhabitants of Rome, became a reward for military service, then a tool of assimilation, then a bargaining chip, then nothing at all. Rome’s effort to embrace the infinite, to throw its arms madly around all of existence, ended when it was engulfed.

To love something is to want to dominate it, to merge with it- and, finally, to surrender to it. Just as Rome once had, America fell in love with the world. It dominated the world. It is in the process of merging with the world. (There is much work still to be done on this front.) Sicario’s depiction of the drug cartel affords a glimpse of the new world America might some day surrender to, a world it formed in its own image, a world increasingly out of its control.

Some might call America’s project good, others will call it evil. They will attribute America’s actions to greed, or power lust, or idealism, or chauvinism, or madness. The same things can all be said of one person’s love for another person, the causes of which are inevitably obscure, even to the lover himself. Good or evil, love is about power. And the loved will always hold more power than the one who loves. And the master will always end up as the slave.

Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: Nicholas Cage is “The Runner” (2015)

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This article’s title comes from a quote by Rahm Emanuel.

In The Runner, our man Nicolas Cage returns to his favored stomping ground of New Orleans as state representative Colin Price, an alcoholic, philandering local pol caught like a crawfish in a trap by a genuine mephistopheles moment in the wake of the BP oil spill.

Price has a history of fighting for the regular people of his district, the shrimpers and scrimpers of the Louisiana lowlands, the bayou folk. And after shedding tears in an impassioned speech about holding BP accountable, it looks like he’s nailed the Kodak moment that will take him to Washington in the coming senate race.  But a viral video of him getting all PG-13 with a fisherman’s wife in a motel elevator is cramping Price’s style.  Will Price fade back into the busy tableau of the French Quarter, seek refuge in the arms of anonymous prostitutes, drown himself in jazz and bourbon?  Or will he get back on his horse and ride for higher ground, without regard for those he must trample underfoot to get there?

A commonplace throughout the film is that Colin Price is a decent man.  His attorney wife Deborah keeps telling him this. You’d think she’d want to be done with him after his extramarital adventures, but that’s not the case.  In a great exchange, Colin says to Deborah, “This isn’t just about our careers.” She responds, “I wish that were true.” Deborah wants him to accept the backing of fund manager and BP stakeholder, dapper and calculating Mark Lavin (you may recognize him as Sterling Cooper’s closeted graphic designer Sal Romano from Mad Men) . For that support, Colin must reverse his position on ending Gulf drilling and embrace the oil industry’s job-creation rhetoric. Also, he must drop his nonprofit’s work on filing local claims for aid from BP.

Deborah produces a second quote that encapsulates the thrust of the film’s third act:

“You’ve always been a decent man, Colin, but that’s not why I married you. I married you because I knew you had it in you to become a great man.  And great men, men who build legacies, they aren’t always decent. They understand that people, they need someone to tell them what to remember and what to forget. They need great men to insulate them from frailty: what’s good, what’s bad.  Because only great men know how to make people’s powerlessness tolerable.”

That quote speaks for itself.  I would only add that the film’s middle act drags precisely because Colin Price is a pseudo-decent man, and he struggles long and hard with his demons, both metaphorical and worldly.  After watching thrillingly Machiavellian tours-de-force like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, I doubt if a contemporary audience has much patience for something as quaint as an alcohol-soaked crisis of conscience. We’ve been trained to want to see things happen, even if those things are horrific.  Moral him-hawing just gets in the way.  

There are certain parallels between House of Cards’ Senator Frank Underwood and Representative Colin Price.  They are both southerners, democrats, and runners.  They both have a predilection for bourbon and they’re both married to women who are more ambitious and proficient in the art of power than they are.

So much for the film as political statement.  As for my opinion of the film qua film, they had me at ‘Nicolas Cage.’ Toss in bit performances by Peter Fonda as Price’s terminally alcoholic father and former civil-rights mayor of New Orleans, and The Wire’s Bunk Moreland as Colin’s savvy campaign manager, and you’ve got yourself something more delectable than Picnic Crawdad Corn Cob Stew cooked in an old oil barrel.