Friday, April 17, 2009

“What a Piece of Work is a Man”: Withnail and I (1987)

The cult comedy Withnail and I finds Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann as two debauched and unemployed actors in 1969 England who head out to the countryside to recuperate from their latest binge and get started on the next one. Broke and with few prospects as thespians, the duo manages to dupe Withnail’s (Grant) gay uncle Monty in letting them use his cottage for the week, and take off with the intention of “getting out of it” for a while. What follows is a comedy of errors and epic bad behavior, as the two insult the local townsfolk, get attacked by bulls, and go fishing with shotguns, all while consuming heroic amounts of “the finest wines available to humanity.”

Withnail and I
is certainly one of the all time great films about drinking and excess, but where it works where movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fail is in the relationship between the two lead characters. There is not a false moment in the film, thanks to an eminently quotable script from writer/director Bruce Robinson (How To Get Ahead In Advertising), and brilliant performances from McGann and Grant as the two leads. Grant is as good as he’s ever been as the mercurial, cowardly, and somehow entirely likable Withnail, a ferocious ball of energy and insults that seems to have stumbled into the film straight out of a Shakespeare play. Described as a man “incapable of indulging in anything but pleasure,” Withnail is selfish, manipulative, and bombastic, and also one of the all time funniest screen characters. Scene by scene, Grant never delivers a line that isn’t pitch perfect, and he’s matched by McGann as Marwood, the “I” to his Withnail, who is the more level headed of the two, but is really only marginally less insane than his friend.

Robinson’s shooting style, as he has said himself in interviews, is pretty mediocre, but his writing is so good that you’re not likely to care. The real pleasure here (as in last year’s In Bruges, which probably owes a debt to this film) comes from watching great actors deliver great lines, and for such a small story, this works just fine. There is very little plot to be found here, just excellent characters, including Ralph Brown as the duo’s drug dealer, Danny. Brown is probably best known as the roadie Del Preston from Wayne’s World 2, and it seems that his character in that film was nothing if not a personal homage to his character here, a long-haired, philosophy-spouting hippie who makes bizarre claims like “all hairdressers are in the employment of the government” and constantly argues with Withnail over who can handle the most drugs. Richard Griffiths is also excellent as Uncle Monty, a wealthy aesthete with a penchant for food and fine wines, who shows up unexpectedly at the cottage with a single-minded obsession to seduce the hapless Marwood.

Along with the performances and great dialogue, what really makes Withnail and I so enjoyable is the theme of friendship that runs throughout. Everyone has known a person like Withnail at some point or other, and we can all identify with the neurotic Marwood. So it's easy to see how much their two personalities compliment and play off one another, and we come recognize how much each man, especially Withnail, needs the other. It’s no surprise that the film is set in 1969, at the very end of what Danny calls “the greatest decade in history,” because Withnail and I is in many ways a film about transition from one period of life to another, and the ways that certain habits and people have to be left behind in the process. The two characters spend most of the film in stasis, perpetually drunk and starving, and as that begins to change, so too does their friendship. This adds a small element of tragedy to what is otherwise a comic tale, and only helps make the film’s uncertain, bittersweet ending all the more perfect.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Synecdoche, New York is the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman, the wildly inventive screenwriter behind films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Over the course of six scripts, Kaufman has developed a trademark style of exploring familiar themes (the creative process, romantic love) while at the same time playing with structure and introducing bizarre plot points like a portal that leads to the head of another person, or a machine that can erase painful memories. So it’s no surprise that Synecdoche, New York is a serpentine head trip of a movie. In fact, there’s no doubt that this is his most ambitious project to date. It’s a behemoth of a film, charting a character through most of his existence and tackling some of the big questions about life and death. What is surprising is how little pathos or liveliness it has, and for a film with such gigantic ambition and scope, how empty it ends up feeling. Kaufman’s gift for exploring the limits of narrative and structure is certainly alive and well, but his script never delivers on enough substance to make it a trip worth going on.

The film ostensibly follows Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director known for audacious projects like a version of Death of a Salesman performed with all young actors. His life begins to literally fall apart when his artist wife (Catherine Keener) leaves him and takes his daughter to Berlin, and his health problems start multiplying at an alarming rate. Convinced he’s on the verge of death, Cotard unexpectedly receives a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant,” and resolves to use his new financial freedom to put on a play that will be “big and true and tough,” a project to sum up his life experience. Renting out a gargantuan warehouse and employing thousands of actors, he begins to build (over the course of years) a giant set replica of the outside world, reenacting events from his life and transforming them into a magnum opus of love, loss, and death.

Kaufman’s script is chock full of references to famous authors and theorists like Baudrillard (Cotard considers, not surprisingly, calling his play “Simulacrum”), Rilke, and Kafka, so it's little wonder that the mood here is one of pervasive dread and morbidity. This is echoed by Kaufman’s shooting style, which is all dark and seedy urban landscapes and dreary apartment buildings (in a nod to Luis Bunuel’s surreal style, one character’s house is perpetually on fire), a decay that seems to mirror Cotard’s forever-ailing body. But Kaufman seems to have little of an eye for interesting composition, and it becomes obvious that whatever spark his previous films had was courtesy of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Similarly, his pacing is unbelievably awkward and mistimed. Every time the story begins to gain any momentum, another twist occurs, or a new level of narrative is introduced (I’m still trying to figure out the relevance of the sequences in Berlin), a tactic that does little for the meta style he’s trying to cultivate, and only succeeds in repeatedly taking the viewer out of the story.

As Cotard, Hoffman exudes a certain kind of exhausted melancholy in every scene (one could argue that he does this in almost every film he’s in, actually), and he does it well, but his character ultimately becomes a caricature of all the worst parts of the creative personality to the point that we stop caring about his latest loss or health problem. Meanwhile the periphery characters, among them Michelle Williams and Emily Watson as two of Cotard’s love interests, seem less like real people and more like stage props for Hoffman’s character to manipulate and arrange in his project. This may or may not be intentional, but there’s no doubt that it alienates the audience to the point that the movie becomes relentlessly tiresome.

This is too bad, because on a scene by scene basis, there is actually a lot to like here. The introduction of Tom Noonan as an actor playing Cotard in the play makes for some of the film’s best moments, and the details of how the play is put together inside the warehouse are fascinating, with Hoffman walking through a maze of different sets and giving his legions of actors direction. Structurally, these parts of the film (probably Kaufman’s career, in truth) owe a debt to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose famous short story “On Exactitude In Science” describes an attempt to make a map with the scale of a mile to a mile. Similarly, Cotard becomes so busy recreating his actual life in his labyrinthine back lot that he forgets to live it, to the point that the two become hopelessly intertwined. This idea is interesting enough, but Kaufman fails to set his focus on any one subject enough to fully explore it, and as his ideas pile up one another, the whole construct eventually collapses under the weight of its own cleverness.

There’s no doubt Synecdoche, New York is full of enough legitimately good ideas for ten feature films, it’s just that Kaufman fails to meld them into anything truly compelling. There’s no argument that he’s an interesting man and an inventive writer, but it seems like beneath all the wordplay, self-reflexivity, and narratology, he’s just not a very effective or natural storyteller. His movies, which tackle some of the big questions of life and what it means to be human, are always paradoxically drab and lifeless, like an academic whose ideas are beautiful but whose own personality is relentlessly bland. Taken as individual snippets, many of the scenes in Synedoche, New York work beautifully. For example, the few sequences featuring the always excellent Hope Davis as Cotard’s therapist hit just the right note of absurdity, and provide the film with some of its few moments of levity, and a late scene that finds an actor (playing a priest) expounding on the nature of despair is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen. But none of this ever gels into anything that feels complete or whole, and while I’m willing to concede that even this conceit might fit into the fractured framework of Kaufman’s script (his style is so meta that it gets hard to legitimately criticize anything), it never succeeds in making Synecdoche, New York anything more than an oddly alluring mess of a movie.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Debate Over Neo-Neo Realism

Soon after posting my review of Frozen River I came across this article from IndieWire about an argument going on between film critics A.O. Scott (NY Times) and Richard Brody (New Yorker) over an article Scott wrote about the “Neo-Neo Realism” that he claims is at work in a lot of American independent films like Chop Shop, Wendy And Lucy and the new film Goodbye Solo. Scott’s basic argument is that these movies, which generally use non-professional actors and tell simple stories about working class people, are the kinds of films that America is currently starved for, and that these filmmakers are carrying on in the tradition of Italian Neo-Realist directors like DeSica, Visconti, and early Federico Fellini. Hence the redundant name of his theory.

Brody’s lengthy response argues that Scott is “making too much” of these films and that the examples he chooses to illustrate his theory are too disorganized to add up to anything concrete. “I think it rests on questionable premises and reaches dubious conclusions,” he says. In the pedantic world of film websites and movie critics, it seems that this little argument has already grabbed a lot of attention, with different critics falling on one side or the other of the debate and wasting a whole lot of time talking about how we’re supposed to talk about movies.

Since I brought up my own little theory in the review about how movies like Chop Shop and Frozen River are operating within a wider framework, I thought I should chime in on this and give my opinion on who’s right in this debate. But after reading both of their essays, I can’t say that either one of them has much of a solid argument to back up their claims, and anyone with the least bit of film knowledge should be able to poke all kinds of holes in their theories.

For example, Brody’s objection to Scott seems to be all semantics, based around whether or not films like Killer Of Sheep are actually Neo-realist, and whether there are better examples of current films to make an argument around. As Scott said in his eventual response, “this is Mr. Brody’s way of saying that he and I like different movies.” Arguing over what movies best fit a concept that you don’t even accept as true doesn’t get you very far. This is not to mention the number of bizarre claims Brody makes near the end of his article, like when he says that the films mentioned are no more realistic than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a claim that is patently absurd. No matter who you are or what you think about the films in question, I think you’d have to agree that a film about a woman who loses her dog, like Wendy and Lucy, is far more rooted in reality than one about a man who is born old and ages in reverse. There’s just no argument there.

This is not to say that I agree with Scott either. His argument about these films is a little too loosely defined for my tastes, since he never seems to make a distinction about whether he’s talking about how these movies are made (handheld camera, location shooting, non-professional actors), or the stories they tell (working class struggles, social issues), or both. In any case, any two of the films he mentions have only a couple of these aspects in common. In this regard, I would agree with Brody that Scott is a bit too hasty to give a name to a movement that hasn’t really developed any recognizable characteristics.

And this is all without getting into the whole philosophical argument about what it means to be “realistic” on screen and whether or not it’s even a goal to aspire to. As Brody mentions, all the early practitioners of Neo-Realism eventually abandoned it in favor of more conventional styles that would allow them to tell bigger, deeper stories by using all the technological tools at their disposal. This was certainly true of Fellini, who abandoned the neorealist style in order to more deeply explore the psychological aspects of his characters. Movies are about telling stories, plain and simple. If a director thinks one style is best suited to telling a specific tale, or if it allows them to shoot it more quickly or cheaply, then they should use it. They shouldn’t worry about whether they’re going to be classified one way or another, or limited by what label they are given. That’s the kind of territory you venture into when you start trying to name a style before it’s even really developed.

Which brings me back to Frozen River, Chop Shop, and Shotgun Stories. The only thing I can really see linking these films together is a desire to document parts of American culture that are otherwise ignored. Films from Hollywood don’t exist in any American culture. They exist in a streamlined, homogenized movie culture that they all feed on and build up to the point that it can stand in for the real thing. America is a big country, and just because everyone shops at Target and Wal-Mart it does not mean we all live in the same culture. If there is any kind of a movement going on in film right now, it just might be the desire to break away from the construct and start documenting the culture beyond New York and Los Angeles. But beyond this impulse, which seems to be presenting itself in countless forms, I have to agree with Brody that there isn’t anything closely enough resembling a new style to be worth classifying, especially not with a name as pretentious and loosely defined as “Neo-Neo Realism”.

Frozen River (2008)

Along with last year’s Chop Shop and Shotgun Stories, writer/director Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River is part of what seems to be an emerging trend in American film to document life as it plays out in specific regions of the country that remain untouched by the prevailing culture. These films seek to show the vast differences in life and experience in the U.S. by documenting parts of the country that might seem utterly foreign to the typical viewer. In Chop Shop it was New York City’s Iron Triangle, an industrial neighborhood in Queens filled with scrap yards and auto repair shops, and in Shotgun Stories it was decaying small-town Arkansas. Here, it is New York’s North Country, just near the Canadian border and a Mohawk Indian reservation, a frozen, gritty backdrop where everything seems dilapidated and on the verge of falling apart.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a cashier at a dollar store, is struggling to raise two sons and preserve a marriage with her perpetually absent husband, a drug and gambling addict who at the film’s start has disappeared with the money set aside for the family’s new double-wide trailer. While searching for him around town, Ray meets Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman with a history of smuggling. Since both have fallen on hard times, the two soon begin transporting illegal immigrants into the U.S. by driving them across the frozen St. Lawrence river between two Indian reservations. It is dangerous and illegal, but it pays very well, and Ray sees it as the only way that she’ll be able to give her children a new home.

Like Chop Shop or Shotgun Stories, Frozen River avoids sermonizing about social issues in favor of focusing on the plight of its characters. Hunt could have used her film as a soapbox to decry American immigration policy or the treatment of Indians in the U.S., but she wisely lets the characters and their story speak for themselves. At its heart, this is a very simple film about the lengths a mother will go to to protect her children. Both Ray and Lila, who is estranged from her baby boy because of her criminal history, are only trying to make enough money to take care of their own. In Ray’s case it is only the simple, sensible dream of trying to get a new trailer that leads her to take bigger and more extreme risks as the story progresses.

As Ray, Melissa Leo gives what is undoubtedly one of the most engaging and unsentimental performances of last year. She’s a consistently strong actress who has appeared in countless projects over the years, but she seems born to play this role, and deserved the Oscar nomination she got for it. Her Ray is a tough, world-weary woman has been beaten down by life but refuses to give up, and is willing to go to the most extreme lengths to preserve her dignity and that of her family. Leo’s performance works so well because she never once asks for the audience’s pity-- she is simply a person doing what she has to do to survive. Misty Upham is similarly strong as Lila, who couldn’t be more different from Ray, but who bonds with her over the need to care for and protect her own child.

Hunt shoots all this in a blue tinted hue that lends itself to the cold and unforgivable landscape of the North Country. The film was shot on location, and the environment, as in the other films, is as much a character as the people who inhabit it. Here it is all trailers and deteriorating buildings, bitter cold and mud, an environment as inhospitable as the economic situations the characters find themselves in. The smuggling scenes are incredibly taut and well-realized, with the characters crossing the river’s thin layer of ice under cover of darkness and transporting illegals back across in the trunk of their car. It’s a deceivingly simple process that Hunt manages to keep adding new depths and higher stakes to, to the point that one of the final crossings manages to be one of the most nerve-wracking scenes of last year.

Despite all this, Frozen River never comes to close to being a thriller, just as it avoids being a message movie. Everything is too grounded and focused on Leo’s performance and the struggle of these characters. Because her goals are so modest and the stakes to reach them so high, Ray’s struggle ultimately has tragic implications. This, too, is a through line that seems to run through these new films. In Chop Shop, it’s the young boy’s dream of opening a food cart, in Shotgun Stories it’s the broader need to provide for family and come to terms with one’s own past. In each case the stories tell about a person’s struggle to improve their station in life, only to be be thwarted by outside forces that are forever conspiring against them. (I'm still waiting to see Ballast and Wendy and Lucy, both of which seem to be of this same ilk). It’s a story we've seen time and again, (The Bicycle Thief comes to mind), but these new films, especially Frozen River, have breathed new life into it by linking it to parts of American culture that previously have not been documented.