Embrace of the Serpent

The last of anything gets a leg up in the ranks of tragedy; the loss of a people ascends to the highest rungs. I was pleased to see that Embrace of the Serpent, the first Colombian contender for Best Foreign Language Film, played to a packed house when I saw it a month ago. This movie features a shaman who’s the last of his tribe played, in advanced age, by a performer who’s among the last of his own. Its stated purpose is to preserve a fading memory. It is more, however, than a specimen jar with first-world guilt reflecting back from the glass. In its (sometimes juddery) black and white, the Amazon cools to wending mercury. It’s veined with life yet still.

At the risk of making the sort of critique I don’t particularly like to make, most white-men-where-they-don’t-belong moviesincluding Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, the Wrath of Godare conceived from the conquistadors’ point of view. Though imperialism is shown to wreak havoc on the foreign environments where it has beachedVietnam in the first example and the Andes in the secondthe narratives seem to be generated less by thoughts of genocide than suicide: by white man reckoning with his own corruption rather than examining the effects his corruption has had on others. That one-sided approach does not take away from those movies or from their filmmakers’ perspectives. But it does redound to this film that its director, Ciro Guerra, has cultivated a fluid perspective that’s thorned by prejudices on both ends. He has the grace to find wisdom in those wounds.

The shaman, Karamakate, is the point-of-view character. The action shifts between his hot-headed younger self (Nilbio Torres) to a 30ish-years-older version (Antonio Bolívar), lonely no longer by choice, for whom senility is creeping in like the first volley of a summer storm. In both timeframes, he encounters a white man; in short, he distrusts the wrong one. The first is a German anthropologist, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is stricken with a disease that only Karamakate is thought able to cure. Abetting a perceived enemy is a bitter pill for the medicine man to swallow; he shoots medicaments like cannonballs up the dying man’s nose. Theo’s frail white wrists clasp the shaman’s after each ministration, completing a fraught pietà.

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An appraisal of Fritz Lang’s M, courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

M (1931) is the portrait of a city united against itself. The efficiency of Fritz Lang’s technique and the ambiguity of its implications are summed up by that lonesome letter, which Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) discovers himself branded with—seared into the back of his overcoat in stark chalk strokes. Fear swims in the bulging white glass of his eyes. Tubbier than in his early Hollywood period, the 26-year-old Lorre looks as much like a golem as a cherub. His waxen moony cheeks, snub nose, and pouting lips make him as delicate as the dolls in the toy store window where Beckert sees himself reflected, accompanied by a little girl. If Beckert doesn’t know what the mark stands for, he does know what it means. The question is no longer whether he’ll be caught, but when—and by whom. M is for murderer. M is what he’s reduced to.

You can read the full piece here.

The Giver

It takes imagination to make interesting its lack. Considering the ring of meh around Phillip Noyce’s film The Giver, I was surprised to see how faithful it was to Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning book. Its faith only breaks on commercial commonplaces—on Y-A clichés that have either blinkered the imagination of filmmakers or conked the source material into an ironic bow. Or maybe a little of both. Published in 1993, the novel predates the current Y-A boom, but is coolly prescient about which marks to hit. It is set in a Huxleyan dystopia: a Bored New World wherein conformity is the opiate of the masses—of everyone, really. Like Harry Potter, the adolescent hero, Jonas, is more special than he thinks; he is, in fact, more special than everybody else. And what makes him special is that he has been selected for an honor that all adolescents in our world are forced to endure: *feelings*.

Jonas’s society is literally sterile; starting at the cusp of puberty, its citizens take pills to banish the “stirrings.” Absent that biological impulse, and the concomitant commitment of love—a word that has fallen out of use because passions aren’t intense enough to warrant it—family life is blunted into a form of social husbandry. Giving birth is a dispassionate occupation that, like all occupations, is assigned to one by the Council of Elders when one is 12 years old. When the story begins, Jonas is at the tail end of his 11th year. One of his friends gets assigned to the birthing center, where Jonas’s father works. Other peers are dispatched to the Hall of Justice, the workplace of his mother. Jonas, however, is appointed to the hieratic position of Receiver of Memory, in whom all experience of past sensation, passion, nuance, and even color, is kept—all that was purged generations ago when the community retreated into insensate, choiceless sameness. The current officeholder is a trenchant, prematurely wizened man called The Giver; he transfers the memories of snow and war and sunburn and love to Jonas, who comes to understand that the tranquility of his parents and peers—who will, by design, never understand what he is going through—is a lie. This is a lesson that any teenage reader who’s high on hormones and low on perspective could appreciate, and a lesson that those who mean to court that demographic have shrewdly learned.

Lowry’s prose, however, is anything but shrewd; it is plaintive in its simplicity. But unlike, say, True Grit, it is barren of irony and other adult preconceptions, and, unlike The Hunger Games, it hasn’t been imagined in terms of TV or the movies and their straightjacket beats. Rather, it’s unadaptably abstract, like A Wrinkle in Time or Fahrenheit 451. (Even Truffaut couldn’t help that the concept of a modern society without the written word is only persuasive when rendered in the written word.) Jonas’s family’s dinner-table ritual, in which they talk out, and thus contain, the superficial pressures of the preceding day, might have been intended as a rebuke of the politically correct thought-policing of 20 years ago; but the thinness of these opioid sessions, with their vaporous good intentions and kiss-booboo grievances, holds up well. (These are omitted in the film, which is less suggestive—too blunt to be creepy.) Someone who has only seen the movie might be surprised by the novel’s lack of reference to technology. To me, Lowry’s spare descriptions brought to mind suburbia more than sci-fi; and yet the film’s aesthetic is the white-walled, food-pill fantasy of 50 years ago, which is by now a stock image of the future.

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Humanity is meted out in Ida, as if hope and happiness were going out of stock. Shot in standard—four-by-thee—ratio, and black-and-white, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film resembles the behind-the-wall hits of the era in which it is set, such as Miloš Forman’s Czech tragicomedy Loves of a Blonde (1965). But a style which once implied alacrity is, in Ida, painstakingly composed, with subjects trapped by staircases and power lines, stark contrasts and infinite sky, snow blowing nowhere. The muted expressions, which glaze the women’s faces and have few rest stops on the road from numbness to suffering, are circumscribed by the limits of one character’s experiences and the other’s expectations. It’s like Melancholia externalized: a perpetual, institutional post-apocalypse.

Ida makes one feel cloistered; it begins, fittingly, at an abbey, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows. Before this happens, the novitiate is instructed to visit with her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who she has never met. (Anna had been deposited at the convent as a baby.) Wanda, whose apartment is luxurious by Lodz standards, goes through cigarettes and assignations on an assembly line, and greases the gears with booze; she has the worn, black pout of Jeanne Moreau. When she informs Anna that she’s a “Jewish nun,” the revelation is loaded like a black joke or insult. To Anna, it’s a non sequitur. Shown no more hospitality than a photo of her dead mother, and neither expecting nor feeling entitled to more, she heads back to the bus station that afternoon—till Wanda has a change of heart. They embark for the provinces to find where Anna’s parents were buried during the war.

These stories of Jews hidden, and ultimately betrayed, under the gun, by their Christian neighbors—the only American variant that comes to mind is the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything Is Illuminated—are rarely told from a Gentile perspective. Seen through the prism of a “Jewish nun,” who is learning to react to external stimuli as a toddler, innately resigned to Original Sin, might, Ida’s journey has elements of both freshness and detachment. Pawlikowski’s take on it is both aestheticized and ascetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the disjuncture between his glacially paced, high-art cinematography and the glacial, dismal settings at first; the implication seemed to be that direct emotion would be too vulgar. But this is a story, essentially, of aftermath: told after the action has happened and history had been set. The film’s deliberative style gives the viewer unusually broad license to scrutinize each frame; it’s like looking at beautiful portraits in a gallery that don’t catch or create a moment in time but digest it. The two women embody “earth” and “grace,” but unlike Malick in The Tree of Life, Pawlikowski makes them flesh—lets them be flesh. In Wanda’s case, waxing flesh, sweating like a candle melting to the nub. A magistrate, she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” in the early ’50s because of her zealous prosecution—and execution—of enemies of the state. She gives the lie to the Soviet bureaucracy; public policy has absorbed her private thirst for vengeance, which neither blood nor vodka can sanctify.

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If Dorothea Lange had shot a father-son road-trip movie, it would have probably looked like Nebraska. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is Last Picture Show black-and-white: it emphasizes dignity rather than romance, showcases imperfections instead of concealing them. If Bruce Dern doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Neck Beard, the system is rigged. Nebraska gives Amour a run for its money when it comes to restraint—and it must be a testament to Alexander Payne’s pacing (and personality) that he can be this miserly with camera motion and not register as a stick in the mud. But he’s left the sludge to Bob Nelson’s script. Without the distanced look and tone, the gentle sense of humor, and the strength of a few performances, this movie would be as vacant as the plains.

Judging by fashion and technology, the film looks as if it could be set anytime in the last two decades—if not before—but its premise is rooted in baby-boomer guilt, circa Morning in America. In recompense for snubbing them in their youth, boomers placed their parents on a pedestal. If the notion that the older generation might’ve suffered in life was ever a newsflash, it’s a faded headline by now; but as a narrative device, it’s proven as durable as a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age. While Nelson has supplied Dern with some evocative understatements, he’s stranded Will Forte with a grown-up version of those lonely, sensitive drips from The Kids Are All Right and The Way Way Back. Someone must have made the assumption that comic actors like Forte and Bob Odenkirk would fill in hollow parts and light them with a funny aura. But with nothing to do but react to Dern, Forte is like Linus without the blanket—or the drive and imagination to get the hell out of Dodge. (Well, in this case, Billings.) And though the emotional core is between Forte and Dern, Odenkirk’s role is so vapid that he barely even functions as a contrast to Forte’s more forgiving baby brother. (Playing a thick-haired TV newscaster straight makes Odenkirk cringe at the waste.) Unflappable Dern has a daughter, too, who misses out on all the revelations due to her own daughter’s dance recital—but why write her into the screenplay if only to apologize for her absence?

I’m being rough on this elegant movie because I miss the films in which Payne spared his compassion for spiteful or pretentious losers, and even aggravatingly ambitious winners. Dern’s Woody Grant is terse, but also feeble and a dreamer, and both he and Forte’s Davey are so helpless that our sympathy is too easily won. Payne used to get by on his compassion because it was heartfelt, but also because there was an acid streak in his work that corroded all the easy forms of sentimentality. Here, his goodwill is displayed like window dressing for a holiday sale. He has a gift for satire without malice, and, at times, the patience instilled in his comedic timing is rhapsodic; his warmth in chilly settings conveys a heavy-lidded dreaminess that Hawaii couldn’t quite support. But the gamesmanship is gone, and, with it, the challenge, the kick. At 84, June Squibb—as Woody’s wife who flashes the grave of a former suitor to show him what he missed—provides some piquant nose-thumbing. There’s a hard country woman, who’s lived in this dust bowl too long to sustain any illusions, hidden behind the comic relief. However, the old Payne mischievousness—the deviltry that transcends impudence—really only shines through in how he treats one of Davey’s oafish cousins, who’s home from a prison stint for sexual assault. Payne’s deadpan here is killer.

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The Artist

People speak of The Artist as if its being a black-and-white silent film were a liability. As if the Weinsteins were taking a risk tantamount to installing hand cranks in the whole bevy of new Beamers. But that assumes that The Artist is an audacious work of art, and not the screen equivalent of the gimmick books by the register at Urban Outfitters. It’s a sweet-natured throwback—an impressively faithful simulacrum—and fun till the plot gets a little tedious and the novelty wears off. Grandma may approve of it more than she does of your apartment’s toilet-side edition of Everybody Poops; but both are processed quickly, and are just as quickly flushed away.

The lineage is so obvious and well-established—the director, Michel Hazanavicius, has cribbed from A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain—that plot explication is nearly irrelevant. But here goes. It’s 1927, and movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) basks his adoring public in a smile broad enough to sprain his jawbone. Enter Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who—thanks in part to George’s tutelage—becomes the new It Girl, just in time for sound to come into play and dethrone the king of silents. Her meteoric success is in direct variation with his career’s demise; but she pines for him, and he’s got a hankering for her, so George’s John Gilbert grows up and becomes the Fred Astaire to Peppy’s Ginger Rogers. In sum, the plot’s as thin as George’s mustache—and light as a communion wafer: Although it stretches only as far as the early ’30s, the storyline is pure Post-Code morality. Peppy would be a contemporary of Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West—but she’s the kind of gal who makes whistles look filthy. Perhaps she’s kinkier on screen—we aren’t shown the source of her star appeal; her career isn’t elaborated on beyond the titles of her vehicles. But Peppy the civilian is selfless, sexless, and one- dimensional enough that a more opprobrious critic might find the film’s sexual politics reactionary. Even this less opprobrious critic thinks it odd that we become as easily inured to the movie’s antique attitudes as we do to its antique format, itself a surprisingly easy sell. Maybe, because of the medium, we tolerate the message?

Hazanavicius doesn’t just replicate the texture of silent films with camera angles and lenses, or from the boyish spring in Bejo’s Charleston step, or the craggy facial canyons of the ever-abiding stock-character chauffeur (James Cromwell); he recreates a context in which we accept the conventions—some may say inanities—of an earlier era of storytelling, with a minimum of irony. This produces some wonderful moments, such as when Peppy’s hand caresses her thigh from the sleeve of George’s unoccupied jacket, or George’s nightmare—synched to glaringly artificial sound effects. But The Artist is imitative rather than innovative; its dramaturgy and camerawork aren’t interesting beyond the fact that they are convincingly old-fashioned. It doesn’t have the insatiable ambition of the German Expressionists, or the intricate stunts of Keaton and Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, or the show-stopping song-and-dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain. And when he threatens to stray beyond the pale of nostalgic novelty, in an allusion to Vertigo—30 years, and about as many genres, off—Hazanavicius cops out completely. The Artist is winsome but negligible. But if the blue-haired ladies who were applauding in the audience keep clapping as loudly as they did for The King’s Speech, giving the Oscar to this silent may be a sound choice.


Metropolis was already a classic when Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless, in 1959. Godard would actually go on to cast Fritz Lang as himself—playing a frustrated movie director, quashed by the industry—in Contempt, a few years later. But Breathless, back for a very limited engagement, was one of the kickoffs of the French New Wave; and, boy, it’s a kick in the vitals—Metropolis feels like a museum piece, Breathless like it was made last week.

They say it’s the 50th anniversary of this, Godard’s first feature-length film, but I don’t believe ’em. For a youth movement, the nouvelle vague has aged strikingly well; sci-fi blockbusters, reissued with upgraded F/X, seem like Joan Rivers jobs by comparison. (This restoration was supervised by the original cinematographer, Raoul Coutard; it’s luminous. Considering the movie’s reputation for improvisation and innovation—deserved though it is—I’m in awe, this time around, of the filmmakers’ assured craftsmanship. But—forgive me—it’s still, by impulse, to movies what the punk movement was to the mainstream rock of its day.) Godard, already an old soul at age 29, had uncorked the fountain of mass-culture youth. One of the director’s early stateside champions, Pauline Kael, wrote that the young hero of Breathless is “romantic in a modern sense because he doesn’t care about anything but the pleasures of love and fast cars.” Not quite. Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is romantic in a modern sense because he’d rather die a movie hero than live as a human being. He apes a picture of Humphrey Bogart’s impassive mug as if fawning over his own reflection. If all the world’s a stage, then this hedonist thinks he’s the leading man. Michel, the romantic, wants to bring the house down; but it ends up falling on him.

Generally, the most fascinating movies are made by artists in conflict with themselves. Lang was of two minds about technology; Godard’s heart is torn by pop culture. Breathless is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, once an exponent of lurid thrillers that were alimentary to the director’s imagination. But he makes Michel shallow because the character’s frame of reference—cheap American fantasy—is shallow. In a panic, Michel takes out a police officer, but his fear subsides as soon as the deed is done. He decides to book it to Italy with his girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), but doesn’t object to dallying around her Paris lodgings, looking for a lay. Godard, in a telling cameo, rats out his hero to the cops. But it’s Patricia, who’s bored with this diversion and game to begin a fresh one, who effectively sells out her hood. Michel, alas, doesn’t make it to prison. To paraphrase the showman’s eulogy of old King Kong: It wasn’t the bullets; it’s movies that killed the beast. These lovebirds aren’t malicious; they’re merely oblivious to everyone else. So it’s hardly coincidental that our femme fatale is an American.

But Breathless is no naggy condemnation of movies, and even less of movie lovers. It is, instead, the first, most immediate collision of the world outside and life onscreen; the first, or the first recognized, example of an artist’s personal voice and experience rhapsodizing under the breath of a commercial-film genre. The historical period in which it was made, so elegiacally stylized in A Single Man and beautifully rendered in An Education, is vividly revived here—so tensely present that immortality seems not just possible but proven. Rather than nail this butterfly’s wings to their historical context, go back and analyze its cocoon, or study the eggs this fertile caper hatched, I’ll just say that the film’s both an enrapturing character study and a furtively insouciant comedy, and that it may be the chillest, illest, coolest, chicest movie ever made, I don’t care what you think, it is.