North Face

Mountain-climber movies are troublesome for any punster to surmount; between the totemic carabiners and dangling ropes, how can one not call them “gripping” or “suspenseful”? After a rocky start—I know, I know—North Face earns its adjectives. The opening is actually less “rocky” than it should be; the film seems about halfway over before its alpinists reach their slope: the Eiger, a peak that casts its imperious shadow over the Swiss Alps. Perhaps the story remains compelling because their route doesn’t take them along the conventional sports-narrative trajectory; ignorant as I was of the source material—the famous first endeavor up the mountain’s treacherous north face, in 1936—the film’s conclusion succeeded in eluding me until it played out.

Although the protagonist, Toni (Benno Fürmann), has the angular jaw and dark eyes of a doomed romantic, he espouses the viewpoint of a pragmatic individualist. This he seems to have in common with the director, Philipp Stölzl—and it helps to ameliorate the film’s weaknesses. Their ascent is a sham from the get-go—engineered as a publicity stunt by the fulsome editor of a Berlin daily (Ulrich Tukur) to prove to his readers what Jesse Owens, a few weeks thence, would disprove to the Nazis’ embarrassment: the innate superiority of towheaded athletes, like Toni’s climbing partner Andi (Florian Lukas). Though they’re spared halos from the media or the Fatherland, Stölzl lionizes the sky-bound diad not for attempting to reach the top of the mountain, but for knowing when to go down, and why. Even as the climbers’ flesh becomes purpler than the girl whose blood became blueberry juice in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Stölzl doesn’t linger on frostbitten limbs like a porno-naturalist; nor does he photograph the Eiger as anything more than an elemental force (not) to be reckoned with. The scenery is rarely “picturesque”; some shots are even underexposed. (Only the music gushes—enough to trigger avalanches.) The film is most effective when our concentration is focused entirely on the climb; the purity is photogenic and the sympathy uncoerced. I almost petitioned the theater to supply blankets for the next showing.

But Stölzl only reaches his summit—there I go again—when things are vertical; the horizontal rudiments seem beneath him. Ugh. Well, to put a cap on my wordplay, I’ll finish by saying that Turkur, though sly and gamy, is basically reprising his venal, Claude Rains-in-Casablanca bureaucrat from The Lives of Others; his thinning flaxen hair and mustache seem combed back with a sleaze that his body naturally secretes, and once you ascertain that—it takes about two seconds—the character’s development is locked in anachronistic media-baiting mode. (Although he does have a good catchphrase. The highest compliment he can pay a staff photographer he’s jonesing for—Johanna Wokalek—is “You’re just like me!”) Andi, similarly, never asserts his humanity beyond a level of benign dweebiness. He may as well be one of the blank-faced little burghers (slihders?) who harassed Baron Turkur’s son in The White Ribbon. At its most misconceived, the movie lobs in social commentary that posits journalists as some kind of idle class and counts mountaineers as among the oppressed. I will, however, give North Face points for its jouncing pace, mainly because what it sets up is worth the wait. For the film, as for Toni, it’s not about the glory, or fame, or prestige. It’s about the climb.

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Greenberg

In a few years, Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg will likely be regarded as one of the quintessential indie films of its time. It isn’t a startling or groundbreaking work, but it’s a very good addition to an upper-middle-class genre. Aside from being an observant and offbeat character study, and impeccably cast—from a random hook-up on down—it may also be the subtlest, funniest, and best-written rumination on the gap between Generation X and my fellow millenials—the worst-named cohort since the baby boom. It’s Gen X idealism coming home to roost.

As Roger Greenberg, 41, Ben Stiller pulls off the most challenging role I’ve seen him play. His mock snarl is as effective for Roger as it was for Derek Zoolander, but this time he doesn’t warp his malleable facial muscles into simian contortions; his key features here are those beady eyes. There’s always been a constancy behind them—a stillness that helped form Stiller’s deadpan—but now they’re used on behalf of Roger’s myopia. This guy is so easily peeved that he redresses every bother with a hand-written diatribe; most of them are probably greeted by snickers and then tossed into the trash—but that doubtfully crosses his mind. He’s a native Los Angeleno who escaped to New York, but has now—temporarily—returned to California, by way of a mental hospital. He’s the caretaker of his brother’s mansion; Phillip’s whereabouts and with-whom-abouts—a business venture in Vietnam with his lovely wife and children—are measures of his success. Roger almost signed a record deal for his band right after he graduated from college; but he was too stubborn to accept the terms, and he and his bandmate, the pilose recovering addict Ivan (Rhys Ifans), have been in a holding pattern since.

Although he’s building a dog house for Phillip’s German shepherd, Roger is ardently committed to doing nothing. Nothing includes trying to rekindle his relationship with Beth (Jennifer Jason Lee, who came up with the story with real-life hubby Baumbach, and wears blocky hipster glasses here), who’s now married/with children. He also catches up with another former bandmate, Eric (Mark Duplass), who chides him for ruining his and Ivan’s lives—although, unlike Ivan and Roger, Eric’s struck it rich. But, most importantly, Roger gets frisky with Phillip’s diffident 25-year-old assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig). She likes Roger because he’s vulnerable—like her. But he’s also sensitive in the wrong way; he has a hairpin trigger. (When Ivan has the waiters sing happy birthday to him at Musso and Frank’s, Roger stands up and yells, “Go sit on my dick!”) Florence can’t have a real relationship with Roger because he keeps telling her she shouldn’t.

It’s tempting to say that Roger, who’d consider a glass to be 50.33367% empty, is a Woody Allen figure—and by casting Chris Messina (Phillip) in the same yuppie role Allen palmed off on him in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s almost as if Baumbach were tipping his hat at the elder director. (Either that or Messina’s naturally suited to play suits.) But Baumbach is less openly reproachful of his nebbishes; he’s less likely than golden-age Allen—whose subject was usually his love-hate relationship with himself—to make any judgments. As much as I love Wes Anderson’s frilly Rushmore, Baumbach has a firmer mastery of the exacting but sympathetic tone of J.D. Salinger stories. Roger bridges the gulf between troubled-teen-son Jesse Eisenberg and complacent-intellectual-father Jeff Daniels from The Squid and the Whale, and Stiller is playing an equally Salingerian hero: Roger probably didn’t act young when he was younger, and he’s still too immature to pass as old. When he’s surrounded by 20-year-olds at his niece’s house-party, he doesn’t seem out of place—that is, he seems in the habit of seeming out of place. (There’s always that clueless oldster at parties like that, you know? And this shindig is, by the way, the most authentic of its type that I’ve seen thrown in recent movies. There’s even a cokehead wearing my cardigan!) As Roger’s redeemer, Gerwig plays her part beautifully—even if Florence is something of an indie-movie trope: She’s Wendy to wannabe Peter Pans like Roger. We never see her take a toke, but she always seems a bit high. Maybe it’s part of the generational critique. Anchorless, Flo floats; rudderless Roger is a sinker.

Continue reading “Greenberg”

The White Ribbon

Austere, as rigid as frigid, guilt-ridden, and severe—it’s safe to say that The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, runs the Nordic track of filmmaking. Set in 1913, in a North German village where blonds are outnumbered only by Lutherans, the movie studies fascism in embryo. Archduke Ferdinand has not yet been killed and Hitler’s still a starving artist, but the parochial structure of Imperial Germany is already wracked with decay. The town’s traditional healers—its pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and doctor (Rainer Bock)—are both carriers of the disease; they infect rather than cure. Haneke doesn’t tell the story of the Hitler Youth; he goes back to the youths that spawned that movement, and the repression that spawned it all.

Although the writer-director tells American Cinematographer that he wanted the movie to look “modern,” The White Ribbon is the sort of European art film we don’t see much anymore—the sort usually associated with auteurs like Bergman, Antonioni, Bresson, and Dreyer. (Modernist?) Christian Berger shot it in color, and then rendered it black-and-white in post. As a result, the exteriors have the lemony vibrance of spiked, acid-bleached hair, and dark nooks are unusually viscous—history swims in a blot of spilled ink. Haneke breaks a sweat maintaining the distanced objectivity, but undercuts it at every turn. In the opening frames, the narration (spoken by Ernst Jacobi, representing an aged version of the schoolteacher played by Christian Friedel) says that the forthcoming story may not be accurate. The village, Eichwald, is fictional, and the adults are referred to only by occupation. The compositions are typically framed by arches and doorways, as if to remind us that we’re outside them. More often than not, the camera is as mobile as a rusty shopping cart. One cannot even be sure when the narrator is speaking from; if the schoolteacher is alive today, he’d be 128. (Jacobi doesn’t sound a day over 120.)

The vagueness—the filmmakers’ insistence on artifice—helps to enliven this deadening world; Eichwald is practically a zombieland. But Haneke does a little flip on desolate Bergmania; his asceticism investigates its own source. It’s less a period piece than a fairy-tale exposé—a latent image of undercurrents that makes no bones about its fictiveness. The filmmakers stick their chilly thermometer up Deutschland’s Rhine-quarters, and their prognosis points to a case of Calvinist ethos. No wonder the feudal fabric is unraveling; or that brutal crimes form a backdrop for the story; and that nobody can figure out the culprit(s). The children are adopting the sins of the fathers because their fathers are so keen on original sin. Cold formalism is all that restrains the filmmakers’ fists from flying at the scrofulous doctor who molests his daughter or the hawk-eyed pastor who beats his children (and genuinely believes that inflicting punishment is more painful than receiving it). Even the tiniest release is withheld from these kids; they can’t talk back to their parents for fear of Father’s cane. They will inevitably grow into their parents. The hatred, repression, false piety, self-pity—they’ll be inadequately prepared to face the rancor that followed the First World War. No wonder they clump together—like a mob. With an average of nine (nein!) per household, these younglings are hard to tell apart. The girls’ black dresses haven’t changed since witch-hunting was in vogue; and, of the boys, only the baron’s son sticks out. He’s dressed like natty-jailbait Tadzio from Death in Venice, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Thomas Mann was working on a sexualized variant of Haneke’s theme back in 1911. When the nascent nobleman is, without warning, savaged by his poorer peers, their actions could be taken for a Marxist children’s crusade, but The White Ribbon is graciously unpolitical. These kids’ future—Germany’s 20th-century past—is the chill that runs down these filmmakers’ spines.

An imaginative cocktail sometimes benefits from intellectual ice cubes. The White Ribbon is glued together by Haneke’s cold intelligence, but his formal detachment may tear some heavy eyelids away from the screen. I yawned a few times during a matinée showing, and regretted not buying a be-cubed beverage of my own; this is, after all, an epic literally drained of color. Some have argued that the film is rigid, and would point to my yawning as evidence. There is some truth in their claim. But it’s only rigid on the surface; one can sense the pent-up emotions bubbling behind the actors’ restraint. There’s a parallel between the subject matter and Haneke’s control-freak method, but the dubiousness of its intentionality is engaging. Does his style “prove” his thesis? If so, does that expose his strength as an artist or weakness? Can a purely emotional thesis even be proven in any conventional sense? His vision is, at the very least, consistent. Pictorially, the cast is perfect—that is, it could be ripped from photos of my great-great-grandparents. But it’s the bastards who hold the screen. Some stray humane moments affected me—a dry smooch that the sweet, potato-faced pedagogue receives from his freckle-faced betrothed (Leonie Benesch), and a young ornithologist whose plaintive voice makes German seem soft on the tongue. Perhaps they only stick out because they’re the few warm undercurrents in a vast frozen sea. But there’s anger thawing the floe—a cultural self-reproach that rages against a mode of thinking that once defined “civilized” but proved to have dehumanizing results. This isn’t a sustained or lovable work; I’d rather spend a rainy afternoon intrigued by The Ghost Writer or arrested by Bad Lieutenant than with Haneke’s meditation on neonatal Nazism. But there’s something lurking beneath the longueurs—and it’s something to look out for beyond them.