PopMatters celebrates its 10th anniversary this week with a sprawling multi-part feature on 62 of the most memorable films of 1999. I happily seized the opportunity to write about Almodóvar’s All About My Mother for the site, and you can read the resulting essay here (though you have to scroll down past the piece on Bringing Out the Dead to see it).
Posts Tagged 'Movies'
Tags: All About My Mother, Almodovar, Movies
Tags: Mark Harris, Movies, Pictures at a Revolution, The Graduate
I first saw Mike Nichols’ beloved 1967 film The Graduate when I was around the same age as its protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college grad who wants absolutely nothing to do with the upper-middle-class adult social and professional life that now awaits him. The movie follows Benjamin (played by the endearingly awkward Dustin Hoffman) as he spends a summer doing his best to avoid making any decisions about his future, and meanwhile becomes romantically entangled with both Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft, in a justly famous performance) and her daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). At nineteen or twenty, I enjoyed the movie, and admired the fine filmmaking involved, but it didn’t involve me deeply or sweep me away. I suspect that the main reason for this might have been that it hit too close to home: it was difficult for me to fully appreciate the film’s sense of humor and ironic distance at a time in my life when my perspective on the world wasn’t necessarily all that different from Benjamin’s. I tried to empathize with Benjamin directly, and ended up feeling a bit put off by the ways in which the film treats his feelings from the perspective of a somewhat older and more experienced adult.
When I saw the film again a few years later, I enjoyed it a great deal more, and was able to see the humor in Benjamin’s predicament a bit more clearly. Still, it wasn’t until I watched it a third time (in preparation to review Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the 1968 Oscar race; you can read my review here) that I think I fully understood the import of the film’s memorable ending. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.) In the closing shot, Benjamin and Elaine sit together at the back of a bus, just after Benjamin has interrupted Elaine’s wedding to another man. It’s a very long take, and as their expressions shift between elation, confusion, and fear, it becomes clear that neither of them have the slightest idea what’s going to happen now that they’ve so decisively cast their lot with one another. It is certainly not a moment in which true love triumphs unexpectedly over all obstacles; in fact, the filmmakers have taken great care to sow doubts about the seriousness (or even existence) of the love between Benjamin and Elaine. After all, Benjamin has only recently stopped sleeping with Elaine’s mother, and very little time has passed since Elaine saw Benjamin as the kid who’d heartlessly and senselessly broken up her family, and then started stalking her creepily and declaring his love for her.
What they really have in common isn’t love at all: instead, it’s a desire to rebel against the wishes and expectations of their parents. In my previous viewings of the film, I didn’t catch the rich and extraordinarily well-observed irony in the situation that Elaine and Benjamin find themselves in. They’ve bonded over their desire to fight against the expectations of their parents’ generation: they don’t want to lead the same kind of blandly materialistic lives, and they don’t want to spend the rest of their days doing meaningless white collar jobs and attending miserably dull parties with people just like their parents. But despite the fact that their relationship is expressly against their parents’ wishes, they’ve entered into it purely in reaction to that fact. If they do end up staying together, their relationship will have no firmer basis than that of, say, the Robinsons, who married because the future Mrs. Robinson had become pregnant (while rebelling against her own parents, no doubt).
According to Harris’s book, young audiences in 1967 tended to strongly identify with the generational struggle in the film, and typically read the ending as a victory of Benjamin and Elaine’s generation over that of their parents. But when someone asked Mike Nichols what happened to Benjamin and Elaine after they fled the wedding together, Nichols answered, “They became their parents”—not at all what those younger viewers wanted to hear. But this, I think, is exactly what makes The Graduate such a great film. I think what’s happening in that final shot is that Benjamin and Elaine are beginning to realize that their life together will have to be founded on something more solid than just a shared sense of rebellion against their parents. Both of them have been so caught up in rebelling that it’s never occurred to them to consider what it is they’ll do with their lives once they’ve established their adult independence. Mrs. Robinson’s rage in the church is not only for her lost youth, but also for the fact that she never made very much of the freedom of her youth when she had the chance. The fear, confusion, and uncertainty on the faces of Benjamin and Elaine as they ride the bus away from their old lives suggests that there’s little reason to believe that they will manage themselves any better (or any differently) than their parents.
Tags: Books, Mark Harris, Movies, Pictures at a Revolution
Just in time for the Oscars, PopMatters has posted my review of Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a book about the five films nominated for best picture in 1968. Harris’s book offers abundant insider information about how each of the films made it from conception to the red carpet, while also making a sustained argument about major generational and cultural shifts playing out in Hollywood.
Tags: Aguirre, art and the ineffable, criticism, experiencing art, film, Fitzcarraldo, John Coltrane, Klaus Kinski, Movies, Werner Herzog, Wrath of God
The purpose of criticism is to attempt to articulate ideas about art: to describe, evaluate, explicate, and interpret. Obviously I’m a believer in the value of criticism; otherwise I wouldn’t write reviews or make posts to this blog. All the same, the moments in art that I love best tend to defy my ability to approach them in a rational and articulate manner. As a critic, I very much enjoy delving into a thorny and complicated work and sorting out its ideas and themes. But as a reader, viewer, or listener, I tend to be most profoundly moved by works that elude the grasp of neat and clean critical interpretation. For me the greatest moments in art are those that ask questions instead of offering answers; that open up in awe at the limits of human knowledge and the mysteries of the unknown; that revel in those parts of human experience that resist our comprehension.
I have decidedly mixed feelings about the work of the German director Werner Herzog on the whole, but his films Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo both contain moments like this, when intellectual understanding gives way to experiential wonder. Both films star Klaus Kinski, whose performances are at once magnificent and also limited by his idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable presence. Much like Jack Nicholson, Kinski’s considerable gifts as an actor sometimes become a handicap; his technique is so fascinating and exquisite that while watching his films, it’s often impossible not to be extremely self-conscious of Kinski as a performer. But at the end of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Kinski transcends his limitations and becomes the center of a scene of indelible power. When Kinski, as the doomed conquistador Aguirre, stalks around a raft overrun with small monkeys, stepping past his delusional and dying companions, it’s possible to understand the scene as being about the absurdity of human pride, and about the foolish vanity of human attempts at greatness in the face of the ultimate reality of death. But what’s great about the scene isn’t its thematic heft; instead, it’s something ineffable in the crazed look on Kinski’s face, in the way he moves and holds himself in his armor, in the scrambling, chattering monkeys, and in the great and indifferent river flowing on underneath the dying men. The scene’s experiential impact is far greater than its thematic content; the whole is much greater than its parts.
While filming Fitzcarraldo (1982), Herzog and his crew actually hauled a steamboat over a mountain. This is a staggering act—an insane thing to attempt to pull off on camera, and an astonishing one in the context of the film’s storyline, as well. The moment when the boat hits the water on the other side is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen on screen: it conveys a sense of wonder at the strength of the human will, and the joy of a great, improbable accomplishment. At the same time, the scale of Fitzcarraldo’s achievement seems outsized when compared to his motivations; the awesomeness of the act of hauling the boat over the mountain seems infinitely grander and more important than his prosaic goal of making some money by opening up a new route for shipping. The real reason Fitzcarraldo (or for that matter, Herzog) brings the boat over the mountain has nothing to do with money or any rational, understandable objective: instead, it comes from the same ineffable, inexplicable impulse that makes human beings want to climb a mountain or land on the moon. All powers of critical reasoning and explication fail when faced with a moment like this: there aren’t any answers in it, but instead only wonder at the awesome incomprehensibility of human experience.
Tags: Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Books, Brokeback Mountain, fan fiction, fiction, Movies, short stories
Most authors are thrilled for the attention and sales that a major movie adaptation will bring, and Hollywood has been kinder to Annie Proulx than to most. But as it turns out, the film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” has recently been bringing her a particular kind of attention that she’d much rather do without. The Guardian is reporting that since the film’s release, Proulx has been bombarded by letters and emails from fans containing pornographic rewrites of her story. Apparently many of the writers have even gone so far as to tell her that they sincerely believe that they’re improving on the original, on the grounds that it had an insufficient amount of explicit gay cowboy sex for their tastes. In the article, Proulx sounds perturbed—though also much more good-humored about her unsolicited (and unwanted) emulators than J.K. Rowling, who recently went after a fan who compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia without her permission, and succeeded in shutting his project down.
In case you’re curious: Maud Newton links to a related Guardian piece which offers some choice selections from ten “Brokeback”-related fanfic opuses, all of which are available on the web, and no doubt very juicy.
Tags: Charlie Kaufman, directing, Movies, screenwriting
CBC News (link via Bookninja) has an interview with Charlie Kaufman, in which he discusses the relationship between his work as a screenwriter and his new role as a director. Kaufman’s latest project, Synecdoche, New York, was originally intended to be another Kaufman / Spike Jonze collaboration, but Jonze had to step aside due to his commitments to work on Where the Wild Things Are.
In the interview, Kaufman discusses his fears that the experience of directing might re-shape how he approaches his writing, because he now knows more about the practical challenges faced by a director, and thus might choose to discard some ideas in a screenplay-in-progress out of fear they might be too impractical or expensive to actually film. I typically think of writing as being a process limited only by your own imagination and personal discipline—so I can imagine that it would be a little disorienting and frustrating, in creative terms, to suddenly find yourself limited by the constraints of the special effects budget or the number of hours of good light in a day.
In any case: this is definitely a film I’m eager to see.
Tags: A History of Violence, David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises, Movies, Viggo Mortensen, violence
In both of director David Cronenberg’s two most recent films, A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Viggo Mortenson stars as a man whose identity is revealed via acts of violence. Both films employ dramatic, game-changing plot twists in which the audience suddenly learns that Mortensen’s character is someone quite different than who he’s been claiming to be. But significantly, these twists come well before the end of either film: Cronenberg isn’t using them to bring about resolution, but rather to complicate the storyline and to unsettle the audience’s understanding of the meaning of the violence portrayed in the films. With a shift in context, what at first seemed to be a brave act of self-defense is revealed to be a continuation of a cycle of vicious criminal violence; and what seemed to be a desperate and brutal act of self-preservation is later proven to be part of a risky and heroic operation intended to bring down a gangland empire. Cronenberg blurs motives and justifications in ways that make it exceptionally difficult to judge whether or not any given act of violence might be necessary or ethically justifiable. All you’re really left with by the end of either film is the fact of the violence itself, which Cronenberg puts on screen in all its awful, shocking brutality. The films seem to argue that violence is irreducible: that whatever the motive, cause, or outcome, there’s no escaping the fact of its horror.
Tags: Movies, This Is England
Set in 1983—just as the English skinhead youth subculture was losing sight of its working-class, Jamaican-influenced origins and descending into anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and violence—Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This Is England suggests that the skinheads’ hatred was fueled not only by nationalism and xenophobia, but also by the psychological wounds afflicted by poverty, political powerlessness, and family abuse. The movie follows Shaun (played ably and movingly by Thomas Turgoose, who would have been roughly 13 when the film was shot, but who looks even younger on screen), a poor boy whose father was killed in the Falklands, as he finds friends among a group of amiable, non-racist teenage skinheads, and then later falls under the sway of Combo (played by Stephen Graham), an older, unstable, and dangerous skinhead of the racist/nationalist variety.
Shaun is the film’s emotional heart, and he’s a very sympathetic figure: it’s easy to feel for him as he grieves for his father and struggles to find friends who’ll accept him despite his poverty. But it’s in the character of Combo where the film’s underlying ideas find their expression: Graham plays him convincingly as a wounded, disaffected young man, who, furious at his own poverty and lack of opportunity, mistakingly directs his anger toward immigrants, rather than toward the government policies and broader economic circumstances that are the actual sources of his problems. But Combo is also the son of an abusive father—and it’s extremely revealing when he can’t bear to hear Milky (the lone black member of Shaun’s circle of skinhead friends, played by Andrew Shim) talk about the happy (if poor) life led by the many members of his Jamaican immigrant family. Combo presents a facade of toughness—and is violent indeed—but he’s also an emotional wreck, damaged by his childhood and heartbroken over what he sees as a betrayal by a young woman who he’d dreamed about throughout his entire time in prison. Meadows shows us the pain that shaped Combo into the confused and monstrous man he’s become—and because of this, we fear for fatherless Shaun, who’s particularly susceptible to Combo’s arguments and charisma, given his own poverty, naiveté, and pain.
Tags: Into the Wild, Movies, nature, Sean Penn, wilderness survival stories
Sean Penn’s Into the Wild can boast of many arrestingly gorgeous shots of animals and natural spaces, as well as a host of fine performances from a strong supporting cast. But the film’s greatest strength is in the depth of its understanding of its central figure, Chris McCandless. The surface story of Chris’s life—that of a naive young man who ventures out into the wilderness on his own in search of freedom and self-discovery, and in the end becomes a victim of nature’s merciless forces—would have provided adequate fodder for a film on its own. But Into the Wild teases out a richer story than this by casting Chris’s fate not as a matter of a man’s foolishness in trying to take on nature, but instead about the pains and rewards of human love and relationships, and the great price exacted when someone turns his back on family and civilization.
In Penn’s movie, McCandless is a smart young man who can’t contain his energy and his hunger for life. As he wanders on his own through Alaska, Arizona, and down the Rio Grande, he charms nearly everyone he meets: people fall in love with him for his intelligence and drive, and also for his wild idealism. They see parts of themselves in him—most often, the idealism, restlessness, energy and hope that have long since been beaten out of them by experience and age. They seem to draw vitality from him, and love being around him, feeding off of his boundless enthusiasm and uncontained desire for making life an adventure. Chris spends a few days or weeks with a number of these people in turn—but each time when he leaves them, he seems to have no idea that by doing so he is causing them considerable pain. Again and again, Penn gives us long shots capturing the misery and heartbreak suffered by the would-be mothers, fathers, siblings, and lovers who’ve freely and joyfully taken Chris into their lives.
When Chris dies alone in Alaska, it’s not because he failed to match up to nature; instead, it’s because he failed to find a way to connect with other human beings. The movie doesn’t offer a rosy vision of humanity or of family life—it’s easily understandable why Chris would want to flee from his bitter and hateful parents, and it’s hard not to get caught up in Chris’s desire to slip the stultifying bonds of a conventional modern life. The film is not by any means singing the praises of civilization over the wilderness. Instead, the idea here is that love is better than loneliness, especially when you have to stand up to the blows raining down on you from nature, culture, and other people. Whether you’re living in the Alaskan wilderness or a tidy suburb, you’re going to need help in order to be able to face what life will bring.