Thursday, December 13, 2007

Private Property

2006, 95 minutes, foreign drama, directed by Joachim Lafosse, France, French with English subtitles

Isabelle Huppert is an actor whose every movement and gesture is a measure of her character’s emotional weight. In Private Property she’s a seething study in resentment, boredom, and frustration. Huppert plays Pascale, a divorced woman living with her twin young-adult sons, the boyish Francois (Yannick Renier) and the bullying Tierry (Jeremie Renier), in rural Belgium.

That these are people whose lives have become unnaturally intertwined is made clear in the first scene in which Pascale models her new lingerie for Tierry and Francois. The tensions that hold the three together boil over when she announces that she’s going to sell their house and use the money to open a bed and breakfast. Tierry’s bullying then escalates into a campaign of belittlement and sabotage against his mother that draws Pacale and Francois closer together. Pascale’s bid to leave behind the sclerotic life that she’s probably most responsible for creating seems like one part escapist fantasy, one part emotional betrayal, and one part rescue effort. There’s also something pretty funny about a member of this dysfunctional triad becoming a proprietor of that universal symbol of quaintness, the B & B. Huppert turns in a prismatic performance that’s reminiscent of her masterful turn in The Piano Teacher. She’s great at playing characters who are victims of their own choices and weaknesses. As Pascale she’s someone whose attempts at change simply increase the speed at which tragedy unfolds. The film ends with an act of violence that rather than changing the family’s life forever ensures that it will remain the same.

Private Property is shot in somber colors and dim lighting with lots of distance shots. If this sometimes makes it hard to get a lock on the characters physical particularities, it also enhances the sense that these are people so mired in some primal, Oedipal dissolution that who they are as individuals may not matter anymore. They’re less a family that’s gone awry than one who has fallen prey to the entropy that self-actualization normally pushes to the edges of shared life. Scene after scene of them eating together creates a dull domestic rhythm that barely contains the sordid undercurrents of this family’s life. There’s such a sense of claustrophobia in Private Property that it’s a shock when at the end you see for the first time how big the house is that Pascale and her sons live in. If the symbolism in this film is sometimes a little heavy handed (Tierry and Francois getting stuck in the mud) that’s okay—after all, Isabelle Huppert’s in it.

Friday, December 7, 2007

You're Gonna Miss Me

2005, 91 minutes, documentary, directed by Keven McAlester, US

The 13th Floor Elevators are one of those storied sixties bands who make me nostalgic for an era that I didn’t live through. Probably the only psychedelic rock band with a jug player, most of their titillating back story centers on charismatic lead singer Roky Erickson. You’re Gonna Miss Me (also the name of the band’s only hit single) chronicles Erickson’s descent into drug addiction and mental illness and the schism it creates in his family.

There’s plenty of fodder for biographical cliché in Erickson’s life. He was an acid-gobbling hedonist in the sixties whose drug use blossomed into a heroin habit. Diagnosed as schizophrenic he spent time in mental institutions, got arrested, and eventual became a recluse. Yet, filmmaker Keven McAlester brings so much intelligence and sensitivity to his subject that Erickson never slips into a stereotype. Anecdotes of his wild past—a band mate breaking him out of a mental hospital, for one—are given just enough time and are interwoven into the larger and ultimately more interesting story about Erickson’s relationship with Evelyn, his co-dependent mother and caretaker. Evelyn's refusal to see the seriousness of her son's condition comes disguised in a kind of forced naivety. “I thought name calling went out with the dark ages,” she says regarding Roky's diagnosis of schizophrenia. Her lack of trust in psychiatry and doctors in general hints at some past trauma of her own and it's easy to imagine her at least in part as a victim of the psychiatric “cures” that were inflicted on so many women of her day. That she also saw her son suffer greatly at the hands of the state mental health system in the sixties and seventies makes her behavior if not defensible, at least somewhat explainable. The film opens with Erickson’s brother Sumner, who fought his mother for guardianship of Erickson, testifying in court that, “My brother should not be living in poverty had my mother been doing the right thing. He needs psychiatric medicine. He needs his life back after thirty-five years of tragedy.” Later he claims that under Evelyn's watch Erickson doesn't even receive basic medical care. It’s clear that at some point Evelyn became unglued and was never entirely able to piece herself back together and while the disservice she’s doing her son is evident, she’s more a sad figure than a villainous one—someone who for forgivable reasons can’t face up to reality. She opposes medication, saying she’d “rather see the psychiatrists be more humane and use holistic methods like teaching yoga, which get you in touch with your mind and body and spirit and just good healthy living.” At one point she creepily recalls a religious experience she had and her vow to give all of her five sons to god.

If McAlester was smart to cast this as a family story, he was also smart not to adopt the “talent plus madness equals genius” point of view. Erickson’s mental illness is shown for the unromantic tragedy that it is and this keeps the film from seeming exploitive in any way, unlike some of the more recent recording and publishing ventures that have involved him.

Of course this is a movie about a musician and it’s full of great archival footage and photos of The 13th Floor Elevators and Erickson performing some of his solo stuff. As a band there was an innocence and a lack of self-consciousness about The 13th Floor Elevators that makes their music seem sweeter as it ages (or maybe as I age), and after the movie I promptly downloaded the first volume of “Easter Everywhere” from iTunes. You should do the same.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Volver

2006, 121 minutes, comedy-drama, directed by Pedro Almodovar, Spain

Unless it’s in the sadomasochistic sense restraint is not typically a word you associate with a Pedro Almodovar film. Yet, it’s what I kept thinking of when I was watching Volver, which is a kind of fairy tale for adults that comes gift wrapped in the film maker’s signature vibrant and arresting visuals. It’s those visuals that reminded me of what a master Almodovar is at going right up to the edge of tacky, but stopping within a nanometer of crossing into its territory. This film is a near-spectacle, and I mean that as a compliment. Sometimes it felt like I was watching a series of paintings instead of a movie and given that the narrative wears thin I was happy to have the not-too-saturated colors and the just-shy-of kitschy composition to get lost in.

Volver is a death and sex-soaked film that begins with a quirky scene of lead character Raimunda, her daughter Paula, and sister Sole cleaning off the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s supposed-dead mother in their hometown in Spain’s La Mancha region. Later the mother returns, revealing herself first to Sole, who in one of the many allusions to Don Quixote, believes her to be an illusion or a specter. Later the mother reveals an ugly secret about Raimunda’s past, but between now and then fourteen-year-old Paula kills Paco, Raimunda’s husband and the man she believes is her father, for making sexual advances toward her and Raimunda covers it up. In a scene where Raimunda is cleaning up the pool of blood that she finds Paco in Almodovar closes in on a white paper towel absorbing a shock of blood. It’s a visual that in lesser hands could have been painfully trite, but he manages to make it seem it fresh and unlike the tired emotional shorthand that it could have been.

Despite sometimes looking like an aerobicized Anna Magnani, Penelope Cruz brings a lushness and sexual electricity to Raimunda that keeps her from becoming the long-suffering martyr that such a story almost demands of her character, and the other actors do a good job of keeping the story from crossing over into soap-opera-grade melodrama. The problem with Volver, though, is that its narrative has a soft, mushy center that leaves us with a fortune-cookie message about the enduring bonds of family and the healing power of truth and love. Maybe this was intentional, but it left me feeling like the movie was a purely surface-level experience—which can make for a more than watchable film, but not a memorable one.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sicko

2007; 113 minutes, documentary, directed by Michael Moore, US

Christopher Hitchens once said of Michael Moore, "He prefers leaden sarcasm to irony and, indeed, may not appreciate the distinction." I’d agree with the first part and maybe even with the second. And while we’re on the subject I may as well say that Moore’s showboating, his paternalistic and scolding tone, his "hero of the common man" persona all make me queasy. That he seems unable to resist the temptation of the sentimental and the urge to reduce nearly every situation to farce is grating too. Oh, and one more thing: I take it for granted that his facts need to be double-checked.

How sad then that Moore is one of the few documentary film makers with mass appeal and box-office viability to train his camera on working-class people who have collided with America’s corporate juggernaut. In Sicko it’s people who, despite having medical insurance, were unable to get care. There’s the woman who at twenty-two developed cervical cancer and was denied treatment by her insurance provider because she was “too young to have cervical cancer.” Another, an accident victim, was told that after being knocked out in a car crash her ambulance ride wouldn’t be covered because she didn’t get pre-approval for it.

As always, Moore relies heavily on personal testimony and people are taken at their word. Given that we’ve got an unchecked, for-profit healthcare system that is unique in the industrialized world I don’t really think the burden of proof is entirely on the people profiled in Sicko, and I think most of us have heard enough medical horror stories from sources we trust to make their stories ring true. Yet, this points to a problem I have with Moore and also to why I found it so difficult to write about Sicko. Like all Moore’s films much of it feels true and I think a documentary should aspire to a higher level of credibility. It often feels like Moore is a satirist trapped in the role of documentarian, said another way he’s a lazy film maker. No doubt, the extraordinary callousness and inefficiency of our healthcare system is rich fodder for anyone with an eye for satire and it’s important (and horrifying) to know that the world of American healthcare is sort of like what Through the Looking-Glass would be if Kafka had penned it. One man relates his story of severing two fingertips with a table saw and being told at the hospital that they could replace the ring finger for $12,000 or the middle for $64,000. Viva choice. The problem is that these are real people and real situations, and to treat them as satire is at the very least to miss an opportunity. It would be a lot of work to to look closely at the predatory system that they're ensnared in and offer a serious discussion of the alternatives. Instead Moore says "isn't this nuts?," offers a thumbnail history of HMOs in the US and then hits the road for what seems to be the medical paradise of other countries.

Probably the most commented-on element of the film, Moore’s trip to Cuba with US healthcare refugees in tow, is vintage Moore. When he learns of the government claim that detainees at Guantamo Bay are given quality healthcare he sets sail with three boatloads of ailing Americans who have been unable to get treatment and from the prow of the boat announces to the guard tower that he has Americans in need of care. It’s emblematic of Moore’s style and it was a scene that had me rooting for him at the same time I was cringing. My reaction speaks to the ambivalence I have about Moore. I’m glad that there’s a bankable filmmaker who’s willing to show the effects of corporations run amok on ordinary people and I believe Moore is genuinely well intentioned. But he's too vulnerable to the demands of his ego and his films suffer under the weight of his outsize personality.

Moore has been criticized for overstating the benefits of the healthcare systems in Canada, Cuba, France, and Britain and his sunny portrayal of beneficent doctors tending trusting patients within infrastructures that run without a glitch made me wonder what the downsides are. I'm willing to believe that the healthcare systems of these countries are way more humane and efficient than ours and I'm willing to believe that we're subject to much disinformation about "socialized medicine." I'm not, however, willing to believe that medical Xanadu exists anywhere. And here I come to another difficulty in writing about a Michael Moore movie: it's easy to focus so much on Moore’s glaring faults and the deficits in his movies that the larger issue gets lost. In this case, it's that we live in the only industrialized country whose healthcare system doesn’t start from the assumption that everyone is entitled to care. I wish someone else could sell out theaters by saying that, but for now we’ll have to settle for what we’ve got.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Together

2000, 102 minutes, comedy-drama, directed by Lukas Moodysson, Sweden
The more I think about Together the more it seems fair to categorize it as a story of adults becoming—well, adults. It’s a sort of coming-of-age story in which characters stumble into true adulthood by having life experiences, rather than being thrust into it by trauma or disillusionment—although trauma and disillusionment are part of the story.

When Elizabeth flees her abusive husband she and her two children join her younger brother Goren at Together, his Stockholm commune. It’s 1975 and the air is charged with radical politics, feminism, and sexual experimentation. You can see the jokes coming. At one point Goren explains the philosophy of Together to Elizabeth’s children, Eva and Stefan, while he stirs a pot of gooey porridge, “You could say that we’re like porridge. First we’re like a small oat flake—small, dry, fragile, alone. But then we’re cooked with other oat flakes and become soft. We join so that one flake can’t be told apart from the other. We’re almost dissolved. Together we become a big porridge that’s warm, tasty and nutritious…and yes, quite beautiful too.” There’s the ultra-doctrinaire couple who condemn Pippi Longstocking as a capitalist and a materialist. Instead of playing cops and robbers, the kids play Pinochet and torture victim. And on it goes. I have a soft spot for counterculture parodies and I’m predisposed to like anything that sends up smug, wannabe revolutionaries. On this count Together doesn’t disappoint, but what makes this movie stand out from other counterculture parodies is that it’s much more than just a counterculture parody (which there’s already plenty of, anyway). Writer-director Lukas Moodysson gives the characters real depth and dimension and the subtle and nuanced performances he gets from his actors makes us realize that most of them are more than the sum of their silly pontificating and posturing.

Interwoven in Together are glimpses into the lives of the commune’s stuffy neighbors whose stilted marriage drives the man to redefine the term “woodworking” in a way that you’ll just have to see the movie to understand. We’re also introduced to Birger, a desperately lonely many who befriends Elizabeth’s jettisoned husband. Birger pines for his impoverished youth in which he and his farmhand parents shared a two-room dwelling with eighteen other people. “Better to eat porridge together, than a pork cutlet alone,” he says. Now that’s lonely. When mainstream culture is this atomized and sterile you can feel sympathy for the Toghetherites attempts—no matter how ham-fisted—to find an alternative.

In a way it’s Eva, Elizabeth’s thirteen-year-old daughter who’s the anchor of the film. She’s a smart and sensitive kid who sees through to the emptiness that the members of Together are trying to fill with slogan politics and contrived intimacy. You know that she’ll eventually wind up with a therapist who’ll explain the concept of the “identified patient” to her. Eva also sees the intellectual vacuity in the knee-jerk rejection of everything mainstream and the wholesale acceptance of anything with a whiff of the alternative to it. Basically, she’s on to the adults.

Yet, this is a coming-of-age story and the characters change and grow in believable ways. As the movie goes on you see them gradually trade in their pre-fab identities for real ones, which are what they are for all of us: a patchwork of beliefs, preferences, quirks, and values that's generally incompatible with dogma. It’s not that they’ve abandoned the counterculture, it’s that they’ve ceased to be circumscribed by it. Moodysson has done such a good job in drawing his characters that I don’t begrudge them the saccharine sweetness of the giddy soccer game that makes up the last scene. They’re entitled to it and I know it won’t last.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mirror

1998, 95 minutes, drama, directed by Jafar Panahi, Iran
The manufacturers of the paykan owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the creators of The Mirror. That’s because for much of the film that’s all we see. Red paykans, white paykans, paykan taxis, paykans from the side, paykans from behind, close-ups of paykans, battered paykans, well-maintains paykans. It got so that I was damn-near giddy when the occasionally motorbike whizzed by.

The film has a quirky narrative structure that pivots on young star Mina Mohammad-Khani’s abrupt announcement that she doesn’t want to act anymore. It starts out as story about a first-grader who tries to navigate the busy streets of Tehran to make her way home after her mother fails to pick her up from school. After Mohammad-Khani quits it becomes a story about her navigating the busy streets of Tehran. The filmmakers decide to leave her mic on and follower her as she travels homeward. It’s then that the meaning of the title, The Mirror becomes clear. It’s about twenty minutes later that it becomes clear that a better title would have been Watching Traffic in Tehran.

The film does include some mildly amusing bits of overheard dialog, like when a man the main character shares a cab with says to his wife, “Women are no slaves, but they should run the house otherwise men will become the slaves.” Or when a nattering and wizened old woman explains that her kids want to put her in an old age home and she says, “Look at me. Do I look like I belong in such a place?”

On her journey home the girl meets one unhelpful adult after another and it made me think that maybe the point here is that finding your way in life is a solitary endeavor, or maybe the whole thing was a metaphor for the primordial longing for order amid chaos, or maybe it was a story about how just when you think you’ve found you’re way you can find out that you’re just as lost as you ever were. I don’t know. Frankly, I’m just glad it’s over.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation

2006, 77 minutes, documentary, directed by Jan Novak and Adam Novak, Czech Republic

I generally don’t expect a documentary on living under Soviet-style repression to yield many giggles, but Citizen Vaclav Havel Goes on Vacation is so jammed with anecdotes of state-sponsored absurdity that at times it seems more like a descendant of The Good Soldier Svejk than a historical document. In August 1985 Vaclav Havel tipped off the attorney general of Czechoslovakia that he was soon to embark on a summer vacation visiting friends throughout the country. Part publicity stunt, part protest, part “entertainment for my friends,” Havel’s trip was alternately shadowed by what he later calculates as 300 StB (the Czechoslovakian secret police) agents. Along the way Havel is detained twice, the last time under suspicion of “preparing to commit the crime of disturbing the peace.” His friends are harassed and sometimes detained as well. One white-haired compatriot recalls the StB breaking into his home and accusing him of “harboring a subversive document,” the Charter 77 petition that called for government recognition of human rights. A poster that reads “Fuck for (peace sign)” hangs in the background.

Havel maintained a cordial, if condescending, coexistence with his minders. One of his friends recalls him startling them awake in their cars one night with an offer of tea. Watching Havel and his fellow dissidents yuk it up about the bureaucratic idiocy they were subjected to made me wonder if their irreverence and broad perspective contributed to Czechoslovakia’s revolution being a velvet one. I can only assume it was part of their psychological survival. I also kept thinking that it’s no wonder that this is the country that produced Kafka. The danger here, of course, is that it's easy to forget that a buffoonish government can also be a treacherous one (read: George W. Bush and company). I think that’s why filmmakers Jan Novak and Adam Novak include the story of a young poet and dissident Tomas Petrivy, who was found mysteriously dead in his home two weeks after meeting Havel at one of his vacation stops. “The people who weren't known had it the worst. The StB took it out on them,” says an acquaintance of Petrivy.

Like summer vacation itself, this film starts to sag about midway through and I found myself yearning for more depth and insight into Havel and his country. I often find absurdist comedy to be too broad and too one-note to be sustained for very long and sometimes it seemed like the humor was getting in the way of the larger and more interesting story. As an exercise in irony—a slice of police-state life—this film succeeds, but I wish the filmmakers would have aimed a little higher.