Summer Medley

Trying to pack in a few thoughts, like cans in a cooler. You can stack them only so delicately, as they sweat through your palms; they are in a hurry to get to the beach, and so are you. Unless you are of a spiritual bent, beaches, like moribund movie houses, are among the few places left to us in which time dilates, either oversaturated by sun or untouched by it. You can’t even get New York Times push alerts in these dwindling temples against time.

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Bless the summer, but it isn’t a refuge. I stumbled upon a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture, the weekend after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. In an open society, the Peruvian writer maintains, “culture should exert an influence over political life, submitting it to a continual critical evaluation and inculcating it with values to prevent it from becoming degraded.”

It’s been pablum for decades that the American left wins at culture and the right wins at politics. But what may have once looked like a stalemate now seems a divorce, with the right not accepting the alimony the left insists on paying. The left, operating out in the open because it has a product that can sell—in terms of its vision and policies—is disadvantaged by the right, which prefers to do its work in the shadows, shoring up its power outside the electoral process, and seeing to it that one’s vote counts less and less as those who’d vote against it account for a larger share of the electorate.

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The Little Hours

The two best things in The Little Hours, among many, many good ones, are Aubrey Plaza’s provocations and Dave Franco’s reactions. The latter plays a peasant who flees his manor after being caught in a tryst with its horny chatelaine. He takes refuge at a convent, where he quenches the thirst of its repressed residents. Cloaked in her habit, Plaza has the enigmatic glare of a Madonnaseething at a distance. The second she’s wrested from a moment of reflection, she becomes fiercely present and goes medieval. If Franco resembles a work of art, it’s because he’s ripped like the cover of a paperback. He has the four-pack of a Fabio and eyes that are equal parts amused and bemused by the attention that endowment brings.

Taking off from a 14th-century farce by Boccaccio, Jeff Baena’s direction and Quyen Tran’s photography stick to the period, continuously refreshing the joke: the dialogue and performances are profanely contemporary. The director’s screenplay eschews slang and modern references, so the central anachronism is the premise itself: that nuns in a convent would have all the itches and urges of bunkmates at a summer camp, their superiors no closer to God than a counselor-in-training. Blasphemy is just an ancestor of teen angst; torture a detention; and fornication a broken curfew.

If the movie itself is blasphemous, it is because it assumes that those who were drawn to the monastic life weren’t all saints; many weren’t drawn at all, but pulled in like workers consigned to middle management. (Alison Brie plays a preppy nun who’s stranded in celibacy because her dadPaul Reiser in a nifty cameobribes the Church with donations. Later on, Fred Armisen shows up as the frazzled bureaucrat who accepts the kickbacks.) But that is the extent of the clerical satire. Mostly, it’s carnal mischiefthe kind of vibe that used to be called “naughty” by people who don’t get out muchwith a pace that rolls like the Tuscan pastures, and leisurely performances from comedic actors at the top of their game.

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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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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A close encounter with some vintage Spielberg, back when he warmed the cockles of my heart rather than compelled my hand to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus a stab at how he and Lucas took over the industry with an alien invasion. Courtesy of Brattle Theatre Film Notes.

Both Lucas and Spielberg are drawing on different expressions of faith . . . But evangelizing to audiences whose self-image was pulverized by collective failures to do good in this world (whether those failures were wars to contain communism or social movements to promote equality), which in turn translated into serious doubts about rewards in the next, isn’t exactly preaching to the choir. This is where Pop Art kicks in . . .

You can read the full piece here.

H/T to Comfortably Smug.

Interstellar

So far as I can tell, the best vindication for Christopher Nolan’s method in Interstellar is its black hole. Like so much of this director’s work, black holes are spectacularly dense but ultimately empty, and yet the fallen star of this film casts a warm afterglow. That most lethal of all world-killers—an appetite incarnate that eats global warming for breakfast and Creation for doomsday brunch—is presented not as the jaws of nonexistence but rather a swirl of molten glass. It isn’t an impediment or the object of dread; it’s closer to being a miracle. Like so much that comes out of Hollywood, this image seemed too beautiful to be true. But, by feeding 800 terabytes worth of astrophysical research into special-effects software, the filmmakers have created the most scientifically accurate model of a black hole ever visualized. The artist’s instinct is to find truth in beauty; Nolan has found beauty in data.

Interstellar wants to ascend to the heavens, but it’s pulled down by the blue ribbons that Nolan has tied to every last meteoroid. Maybe ten minutes have passed before Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told by his father (John Lithgow) that this world was never enough for him. Those lousy bureaucrats who don’t believe in dreams have reduced this erstwhile engineer, test pilot, and all-around gentleman and scholar to subsistence farming. In the midst of something-or-other that somehow relates to climate change, our intrepid hero’s old employer, NASA, has been defunded. Instead of trying to stanch this cataclysmic dustbowl, the powers-at-be are sticking every able body with a pitchfork, and rewriting textbooks to remind kids that the moon landings were faked. Strangely enough, for what appears to be a rapidly collapsing, quasi-totalitarian state, the military has also been abolished. The plow is mightier than the sword—until it comes time to take out the riot gear.

You see, it’s not like back in the day, when people used to have ideas and build things—or so Grampy Lithgow groans, again and again. But who could blame these neo-Okies for not wanting to listen? An estimable actor like Lithgow must need Ex-Lax to get lines like these out. Whatever his heartfelt convictions, Nolan is not a born populist when it comes to expressing them. He mistakes pablum for wisdom. And then he goes and does a flip on his perceived audience anyway by having Coop discover that NASA’s alive and well, and guzzling tax dollars in secret—ergo, whoever is running things is actively stripping its citizens of hope for the future, by way of propaganda, but is at the same time financing a rescue operation behind their backs because they’re too cynical to be counted on to support it? Perhaps I’m slicing things too thin, but considering his reputation as an idea man, Nolan sure seems oblivious when it comes to implications. This homage to 2001 could’ve been called Mr. Magoo Meets the Monolith.
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Ida

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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Man of Steel

Man of Steel isn’t bad for a superhero blockbuster—which is to say that it does a good job of not being terrible despite the twin handicaps of having Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder attached to it. Their movie is a work of popcorn theology—supersized, with extra butter, and a couple pillars of salt; but, as its faith is as widely practiced and sanctioned as any in our culture today, its message is as worthy of scrutiny as that of a televangelist. It’s no secret that the ur-hero, who came to Earth from Krypton to save us from a fallen angel named General Zod, has been resubstantiated as a Christ figure. His conception was the opposite of immaculate: Kal-El is the first of his kind in centuries to be born of copulation rather than bred into a destiny like his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and Krypton’s generalissimo Zod (Michael Shannon). When the advanced planet, starved of resources, blows up, Kal floats down the Nile to Kansas in his space bassinet, and is raised by a farmer named Kent (Kevin Costner) with a bumper crop of moral fiber. Kal (Henry Cavill), whose name is anglicized to Clark, has godlike powers in this new environment, but a hypersensitivity to it, too. His Joseph figure teaches him restraint for his own safety’s sake—humans aren’t ready for the Second Coming; we don’t even have a cross of kryptonite to nail him to. The way he hangs around truck stops during his post-high school years, if Clark wasn’t a closet superhero, I’d expect this saintly lumberjack to be a closet something else. But he’s essentially a free-agent Good Samaritan, without branding. When Zod and his junta, exiled from Krypton and thus its only other survivors, arrive on Earth, Clark has to save his adopted people from his bloodthirsty compatriots, who are angling to strip-mine our planet and turn it into a new Krypton. Like a transplanted sports fan, Superman is torn between home teams.

What Man of Steel makes clear, which previous iterations of this franchise (which dates back to 1938) may have glossed over, is that doing the right thing is a choice. Granted, I need to brush up on my Bible, but the immediate parallel that occurs to me isn’t in Scripture, but Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When, way back in the Captain America period, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was as much about choice as being drafted into World War II was. It was about duty. No questions asked. Virtually all superhero movies are about choice on some level, but the immaculate, unearthly Superman may be the only one for whom this solemn peroration is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman was a mortal in the real world, even if the director gave no evidence of familiarity with it; Nolan’s Superman is in a real-ish world, too—but, here, the setting is even less stylized than Gotham, and serves as a contrast between men and this god among them. Or at least it should. There is an idea behind Nolan and David S. Goyer’s conception, and that counts for something; but, as usual, it gets as worn down as the Metropolis skyscrapers that are battered by Zod. If the material were really to be brought up to date—and, on top of that, made intellectually respectable—Superman must guide his new neighbors down a path that allows us to avoid the self-destructive fate of Krypton. If that planet stagnated because its population was deprived of choice, surely it’s on the filmmakers to demonstrate how humans are saved by their capacity for choice—and not simply by a Caped Crusader: the deus ex machina of childish escape fantasies. Making him a Christ figure—even making him human—is an easy way out, because the humans aren’t compellingly human, but are mere pawns in a spectacle that is likely much more cynical than Goyer or Nolan anticipated it would be. Our foremost faculty, it is implied, is not our liberty but our helplessness. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses is often misunderstood, but the logic behind the misunderstanding clarifies why makers of blockbusters are now mining the Church for material: superheroes once provided escapism; they now stand for ritualized self-delusion.

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