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.

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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.

the indie film guide to post-grad life

below are some films that give a sense of what happens after college.

what it’s like after graduation:
Frances Ha (2012), Noah Baumbach
Kicking and Screaming (1995), Noah Baumbach
The New Year (2010), Brett Haley

what it’s like ten years out:
The Comedy (2012), Tim Heidecker
Garden State (2004), Zach Braff
Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Lynn Shelton

what it’s like twenty years out:
Old Joy (2006), Kelly Reichardt
Margot at the Wedding (2007), Noah Baumbach
Greenberg (2010), Noah Baumbach
Step Brothers (2008), Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly

Man, Machine, Nature: Training and Ideology in Stallone’s “Rocky IV”

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The year is 1985. Rocky Balboa challenges Russian boxer Ivan Drago to a fight, in order to avenge the death of Apollo Creed, whom Drago has just killed in the ring.  The fight is to take place in the U.S.S.R., on Christmas Day. Into the belly of the beast.

The midfilm Drago/Balboa training montage is revealing.  Two ways of training, two superpowers, two ideologies.

Drago trains in a windowless facility, surrounded by doctors and trainers with clipboards, using machines, running on a treadmill while wired up to monitors.  Rocky trains in the woods and in a barn, often alone, lifting rocks, pulling a sleigh through snow, chopping wood, and climbing a mountain.  Where Drago pummels lightweights in a ring for practice, Rocky, humanely, shadowboxes. In one key shot, the camera flashes from Drago toppling some nameless unfortunate to the mat, to Rocky felling an enormous tree in an alpine forest.  In an ironically un-communist twist, Drago struggles against others, whereas Rocky struggles against nature, and more deeply, within himself.

Drago is a product of scientific specialists and political authoritarians, an instrument crafted for the accomplishment of a singlemineded goal: the defeat of the best American boxer.  Note that in the film’s most famous line, Drago says not ‘I want to break you,’ or ‘I will break you,’ but “I must break you.”  Drago fights by mandate, by government edict.  He is cold and inhuman, trained with mechanics and technical knowledge, and a few shots portray him as being trapped within the training apparatus, an animal in a cage.  He shows no remorse when his punches lead to the death of Apollo Creed; this is simply his ideology’s logical conclusion, the elimination of the disorderly human element from a closed loop of order. Inasmuch as a totalitarian system (though it may be initiated with the goal of the collective’s benefit) forces its individual members to behave like machines, it is the antithesis of man and his erratic desires and emotions, and in the long run, man himself turns out to be its true enemy.

Rocky is an expression of sheer individual will and a very human desire to avenge a fallen friend and comrade-at-arms.  Training outdoors by rustic, antiquated means, he is the pioneer, the kind of intrepid frontiersman that won the West, with his monklike determination and lone-wolf mission that even Adrian cannot understand, though she does eventually come to support him.  Running along the snowcapped peaks, Balboa cuts a romantic figure, reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.”  He is the underdog in a strange land, dwarfed by his competitor and the enormity of nature that he pits himself against.  He is an American.  Towards the end of the montage, Russian agents in a black sedan follow him down a path, and he foils them by running into the woods.  As opposed to Drago’s caged animal, Rocky is the wild animal, as Springsteen put it, “Born to Run.”  Reaching the peak, Rocky shouts “Drago!” and his voice rings through the mountain range.

Grounding the possibility of both triumph and loss are acts of freedom.  Rocky knows both sides of this coin, for his choice to not step in and end an earlier match, instead honoring the wounded Apollo Creed’s wish to continue to the bitter end against Drago, led to Creed’s death.  An authoritarian would have stepped in and insisted on throwing in the towel “for Creed’s own good,” but Rocky, the ever-consistent libertarian, allowed his friend to make his own choices.  The looming, unmatched battle, which no one believes Balboa can win, is a both a consequence of those earlier choices and a new choice by Balboa.  There is a chain of cause and effect, but at each stage, Rocky acknowledges no outside forces and takes no refuge in ‘musts,’ as Drago does, accepting his fate as his own doing.  Rocky retains the power to save or damn himself, and inasmuch as his fight is a proxy for a war between freedom and its antithesis, he has the power to save or damn the world.

Crime and its Discontents: a comment on William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” (1971)

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With an eerie soundtrack by Don Ellis and a depopulated backdrop of urban decay and moral ambiguity, crime thriller “The French Connection” feels like it needs an introduction by Rod Serling:

 

Step inside the mind of NYPD Narcotics Division Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, possessor of an insatiable hunger for the chase, and suspicions grand enough to feed it. Doyle has caught a scent of something big going down in Brooklyn, involving a local wise guy with a cover as candy store owner, a visiting French actor, and a bearded international shipping magnate.  Doyle’s self-imposed mission takes him down a path no one else can follow: into the very disorder he claims to define himself against. Watch the detective as he pursues a connection corrupt enough to rend his own creed, through a cold, garbage-littered gritscape somewhere east of the Brooklyn Bridge, somewhere west of the ports of Marseilles, somewhere that shares borders- and business contacts- with The Twilight Zone.

What separates The French Connection from most other American crime films that preceded it is that the bad guys win, and that by the time the credits roll the audience is no longer sure how good the good guy is. It is a deconstruction, clearing provincial American notions of ‘justice’ out of our movie theaters, making way for a stark view of the real lever of events- international commerce.

Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a small-time cop who gets in over his head, stumbling upon a criminal conspiracy that is many dizzying levels above his pay grade.  Sure, his partner and superiors are eventually convinced that he has uncovered a massive transaltantic heroin deal in progress, and they bust Brooklyn crook “Sal” Boca and the other American buyers, but the seller, the big fish- internationalist Alain Charnier- slips away unscathed back to his Mediterranean villa and stylish girlfriend. Doyle, in order to achieve even this qualified semi-victory, had to endanger the lives of countless civilians in a number of spectacularly reckless car and train chases.  A woman pushing a baby carriage is shot by a sniper during an attempt on Doyle’s life, and Doyle himself, tilting at shadows in a dank decaying building, shoots and kills a federal agent he mistook for the bearded Charnier. One is left wondering if all this carnage was worth it.

We are given reasons to question our protagonist almost at the outset. Doyle would never have discovered the conspiracy, had he not been drinking in a club, spotted Sal Boca, and been disgusted and yet attracted to the other man’s decadence, camaraderie with his fellow criminals, and pretty girlfriend. Later, we are treated to a shot of Doyle driving his car aggressively behind a well-dressed woman on a bicycle, and it is made clear that he takes her to bed.  Though the event is consensual, we are nevertheless treated over and over to imagery of predator and prey, with Popeye Doyle cast in the role of the former. What are Doyle’s motivations, at their heart? We are left to wonder.

This is why the film earned a place in the Library of Congress: It marks a turning point. Before The French Connection, the message was that crime never pays, and the good guys always win. After The French Connection, we are forced to ponder the possibility that everyone might have been better off if the good guys had stayed home today.

The French Connection’s true villain is overeager cop Popeye Doyle himself.  His crime is that he upsets the order of things.

the conversation: some thoughts on “Calvary” (2013)

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There’s been a lot of jaw-wagging over the past two centuries about Authority. What is it, where does it come from, why should we follow it, what should it do. Once it was thrown out in the open that there are no natural authorities, that, as one of my mentors once said, “the world doesn’t give us an ‘Ought’,” the conversation kind of fell apart into camps of people that don’t talk to each other. But perhaps that’s the way it’s always been.

Some, the Utilitarians, thought they could turn things into an equation.  Greatest good for the greatest number.  We all know what that leads to- make a few suffer spectacularly to shore up the bland creature-comforts of the masses (the most mechanistic and modern answer, ironically just a mirror image of Christianity). Others, waving the flag of democracy, said ask the masses themselves what they want- they know best, and can tell us with their votes.  Well, it’s all too clear that they can’t. They vote away their own authority every chance they get.  The conservatives thought everyone should keep the faith, or rather that we should keep it while they, clever and beneficent initiates, prop up the whole farce from behind the scenes, lest all hell break loose.  But they never fail to show themselves unworthy to the throne they hide behind, and upset stable conditions just as often as they preserve them.

Some people tried to turn Darwin into their god, and said that Nature mandates the survival of the fittest.  It mandates no such thing, as they would have known had they actually read his book.  Sometimes the strongest, smartest, and most ambitious survive, but just as often conditions favor the the timid, the unexceptional, and the parasitic. There’s a good deal of randomness tossed in, and ‘Nature,’ whoever that is, really doesn’t voice an opinion on any of it. Nature is silent.  Though it can sound, at different times, like a void or a busy, cacophonous chaos.

Nietzsche said god is dead, and he didn’t just mean that bearded voyeur in the clouds.  Any one pursuit or value or interest you try to put up on that pedestal and make your personal god- Nietzsche is there to mock it.  It all comes down to personal choice, really.  It’s all on you.  There’s no reason to do anything you do, except that it’s what you chose.  Which is just as absurdly circular as it sounds.

And if you choose to be a priest, that’s on you too.  And in these dark times, you’re placing a target on your back.  That’s what good-naturedly acerbic widower-turned-priest Father James finds out in “Calvary,” a film baked to perfection from equal parts drama and black humor.  You may recognize the actor, Brendan Gleeson,  from his role in 2008’s “In Bruges” as the reluctant assassin sent to kill Colin Farrell.

In Father James’s small town parish, something is rotten.  In fact, everything is rotten, it seems, but Father James.  A cast of locals includes such delightfuls as the atheist doctor, the promiscuous foreigner, the bitter gigolo, the battered adulteress, the antisocial young male, the jaded high-finance bachelor, the suicidal curmudgeon, and the emotionally adrift daughter.

Why should we do what we do?  Why should we do anything? Nobody can say for sure, least of all Father James, who has his own doubts and demons.  But he’s there to listen. And when the priest unlocks his own word-hoard, he has some interesting things to say. As long as the words flow both ways, there is hope.