Sunday, April 09, 2006

Art As Hammer

I have a fairly limited experience with theater, and I’ve always preferred form over content so stage has never really been a medium of art that interests me much, but, disclaimers aside, “The Threepenny Opera” just might be the best stage production I’ve ever seen. Regardless, I certainly have never been surrounded by such immense and varied talent before in my life: Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer, Nellie McKay, Cyndi Lauper, Jim Dale and a host of unknowns.

Enough has been said of Cumming’s talents: he exudes an unparalleled presence that draws you in and turns you on. The underlying sexuality to all his actions suits the role of Mac the Knife perfectly as he keys into the relationship between sex and violence with more subtlety than David Cronenberg. It’s not so much written in his dialogue as it is in his body language; he transfers exhilarating sensuality into exciting brutality. I don’t know where Ana Gasteyer’s been hiding her pipes, but she doesn’t look as foolish as you would expect up against Cyndi Lauper and Nellie McKay. And if the latter won’t tour, this second-best bet is a pretty great display of her talents. She carries the first act all herself with a speaking voice equally as provocative as her idiosyncratic singing. She has a completely infectious personality that makes it impossible not to fall in love with her. She handles her character’s naiveté with a bubbly knowingness, walking the thin line between ditziness and power.

Paul Haggis might not understand Brecht, but Wallace Shawn does. His adaptation breaks the fourth wall—as does the inventive lighting—to encompass the audience into the world he creates. Studio 54 itself is very open to its audience and the propinquity between the actors and viewers makes the latter more like participants. Shawn uses this essentially modern setting to explore issues of gender and money in current terms. “The Threepenny Opera” is a prescient, exciting, one of a kind opportunity. If you’re in New York City, don’t miss its short run!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Truman Show

Capote is a surprisingly funny movie—an aspect I missed the first time around when the whole exercise felt overwhelmingly mediocre. The black humor masks itself so well thanks to Bennet Miller’s distantly sympathetic eye and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s precise portrayal of the title role. Hoffman, an actor who I have never cared for or respected, ascends beyond the gimmicky work he usually turns out to finally get to the heart of a character. I’m not sure how telling it is that that character is himself manipulative, but Hoffman nails the engaging charm that drew people—in this case the audience as well as acquaintances—in to Capote. I was so convinced myself of Hoffman’s performance the first time that I didn’t even understand its effectiveness; he so mastered Capote's persona that I didn't scoff when a woman calls him “good people” or notice how dry his tears in the final emotional moment. Miller masks this humor so effectively by simultaneously investigating Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith sympathetically. He documents the effects the two have on each other with such care that he hides the degree to which he is disgusted with Capote’s self-involvement; the epigraph clarifies his view of Capote’s emotional isolation. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel shot most of the film in wide shot, establishing the wide landscapes of the Midwest and Capote’s expansive social network. The film’s first true close-up features Clifton Collins, Jr. recounting what we’ve been waiting for the whole film, and the unnerving intimacy of the shot draws the viewer in. From there on, Kimmel uses suffocating tight angles and frames Capote in small places, behind glass. The stark contrast of the cinematography at the beginning and the end is subtle, but key to understanding where Miller stands. When we last see Capote, he’s on an airplane, suspended in the air and confined to his seat; this final image contrasts the easy and open mobility—trains are an ominous figure in the film—we associate with Capote, and provide the sadness of the film’s ending.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

New York Trust

That’s the name of the bank at the center of the heist in Spike Lee’s latest, Inside Man, and it’s pretty much nonexistent in film, not to mention the real world. Inside Man observes a distinctly post-9/11 New York in which no one can be trusted—not even the victims of a crime. Lee creates an atmosphere that envelopes the audience who can’t believe anyone either as we attempt to discover the “inside man” of the title. (It turns out there are two: one’s a cruel joke; the other’s a slightly predictable insight into the movie’s themes.) As hostages exit the building carrying notes from the bank robbers (Clive Owen, chief among them), police pat them down at gunpoint before interrogating them in search of answers. Lee understands the nature of this paranoia of urban living, but he doesn’t let any of his characters off easy for it. When one hostage removes his mask revealing his Far Eastern complexion, an officer screams, “Shit, he’s an Arab!” It turns out he’s a Sikh and Lee captures the police’s insensitivity as they remove his turban and make jokes about how easy it must be for him to hail a cab. Making this moment distinct from other films, Lee doesn't just note our fear of Arabs but also the way it makes us paradoxically move counterproductively away from our objectives. This is a culture that certainly “hasn’t forgotten” as a huge poster of the American flag later in the film promises. Spike Lee appears to be the only serious filmmaker willing to tackle September 11th’s effects on the city in any real way. Inside Man presciently tackles the psychology of crisis in terms of race and fear—even the hostages wonder whether they’re the victims of a terrorist attack. For someone so in tune with cultural prejudices, Spike Lee himself shows hints of anti-semiticism. For one thing, Lee mocks the zaftigs who pepper Yiddish in their speech, then he implicates a Jew—yarmulke and all—in the actual robbery. These errors are hardly fatal but they make me question Lee’s commitment to incisive social commentary.

As Detective Keith Frazier, Denzel Washington delivers possibly his best performance with a ferocious machismo—he has about fifteen names for his penis—and a sly sense of humor. Even as Frazier succumbs to the chief evils of the film, he allows his good intentions to shine through his rough exterior. That chief evil is money, which makes Inside Man’s world go ‘round. Every character in Inside Man is motivated by greed; materialism pervades the whole film. When the robbers catch a man with a cell phone, it rings Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” and an eight year old hostage—‘scuse me, eight-and-three-quarters—invokes 50 Cent’s debut album. Indeed, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ might have been an apt title for Spike Lee’s most recent classic.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Blame Game

What is Elephant? For one thing, it’s not so much a movie as it is a debate; the screenplay, credited to director Gus Van Sant, is actually the progeny of conversations with the young nonprofessional cast about their fears and concerns in the post-Columbine world. Due to this method and Van Sant’s penchant for improvisation, Elephant, a devastating and insightful look at the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, is rife with ambiguities. Even the title doesn’t have a definitive meaning: derived from Alan Clarke’s 1989 documentary of the same name about a series of violent killings in Northern Ireland, Van Sant mistook the source of the title. Clarke meant to evoke the proverbial “elephant in the living room,” a large problem right under our noses that we still ignore, but Van Sant misunderstood the origin as the Buddhist parable about blind men each feeling a different part of the creature and mistaking it for a different species. Van Sant explains, “the elephant is like a wall to one; a rope to another; a tree to another; a snake to the fourth one . . . It’s an unanswerable question.” Each of these interpretations can be applied to Van Sant’s animal, the sterile and haunting hallways of the modern high school. At once, Elephant presents a society ignorant to its own problems, but recognizes how hard it is to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

The film itself is best described as a puzzle—scrambled narrative pieces, jumbled out of order. Labeled by a character’s name, each section takes on a new focus; first, it’s that of John, late to school because of his drunken father; then Elias, photographing other students on campus; followed by Michelle; then Nathan; a group of girls. All of these pieces appear relatively banal on their own, and hardly total a complex storyline. Rather, they weave a thematically rich tapestry, building Hitchcockian suspense and evoking Robert Bresson’s naturalism. Rejecting traditional storytelling methods, Van Sant’s approach is meandering but focused, fluid but constant. Even as the camera lazily travels from character to character, it retains the theme of teen angst and a tone of impending doom. Sequences are perceived multiple times from varied angles, and are arranged out of order with only a loose sense of time; intersecting plotlines and character trajectories, the film systematically rebuffs narrative development. The consecutive sequencing of that traditional structure implies that every scene is a consequence of the one it follows. Van Sant believes otherwise: Elephant’s world is one of a consequential continuum, in which each moment affects and is affected by those that both precede and follow it. Integrating the cyclical style of Béla Tarr’s Santantango and the varying realities of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Van Sant works not only to achieve this mood but also to repel the overwhelming audience urge to organize Elephant into a story. As Jonathan Rosenbaum explains, “Faced with a succession of film frames, our desire to impose a narrative is usually so strong that only the most ruthless and delicate strategies can allow us to perceive anything else.” In many respects, Elephant isn’t so much non-narrative, as it is anti-narrative—a vigorous denial of the easy way out. Elephant ends where it begins, with a shot of the day closing into night: just as the society can’t progress past its infantile assumptions on the serious issues Elephant presents, the film’s narrative doesn’t progress beyond its own starting point.

Harris Savides’s observant camera maps a circuitous route around the school, following characters from behind only to leave and meet up with them again with new perspective later. Elephant’s dreamlike non-linear style provides further insight into the lives of the students; as Van Sant approaches a repeated scene, he captures deeper detail and unearths what’s beneath the surface. The first time around—or second or third—the vehicular character restricts our understanding of the events on screen, but the reconsidered focus reveals another layer of the action. Elephant’s narrative parallels its themes: we might intensely and continuously study our culture, but we’re always missing something. According to Van Sant, Columbine wasn’t—or couldn’t have been—anticipated because we are far too myopic, if not blind, to comprehend something so expansive.

The problem arises not that the characters, and their real-life counterparts, aren’t observant enough, but that they don’t focus on the right things. From the opening sequence of the film, Van Sant is skeptical of the continuous scrutiny, especially from parents. John’s father doesn’t hesitate to remind his son to “buckle up for safety,” despite the fact that he’s just been driving the junior around while under the influence. Once John takes the wheel, his father recommends that they go hunting later in the week, one of Van Sant’s many hints at the culpability of American gun culture. Later, Jordan laments her mother’s intrusions, recounting waking up to ruffled sheets and opened drawers. Jordan’s nameless mother—as all the parental figures are in Elephant—makes these attempts to understand her daughter, but ultimately misses her habitual bulimia. (Jordan and her friends instinctively travel to the bathroom complaining of bloated stomachs after a two-minute lunch.) Finally, with the killers themselves, Van Sant indicts absent parents, who don’t even attempt the however feckless efforts of the others. Alex’s parents’ faces never appear on screen—their bodies always cut off at the torso. Eric’s parents never even garner mention; he stays at Alex’s house overnight without ever contacting them.

When we first meet Michelle, a gauche misfit who refuses to show her legs in gym class, she is stopped, peering awkwardly toward the sky as other students play out a game of touch football behind her. There’s a sense that something is wrong, but ironically the inevitable doom comes from behind her and not up above. Just as with the children’s parents, Michelle misinterprets the source of the problem. Throughout Elephant, characters constantly recognize community issues and imperfections, but never make more than superficial attempts at ameliorating the consequences of our society. During a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting, the camera circles the room as students discuss trite issues like determining how to tell if someone is homosexual and a newspaper article about gay rams. These are the people making the effort, but their observations are undeniably uninspired and banal.

This scene also wonderfully captures the vulnerable teenage disposition: the camera focuses on one student at a time as Van Sant juxtaposes a giggling girl with a dejected boy slinking in his chair. Paralleling these shifting emotions, throughout Elephant, light is constantly in flux. In one extended sequence of Nathan—having just dressed himself in a symbolic Lifeguard sweatshirt—traveling through hallways passing dancers and gawking girls, shadows absorb white light and the glaring sun overtakes dark passages. The instability of the light mirrors the frailty of the film’s characters: both easily slip from vivacity to despair, geniality to loneliness. Each and every character in Elephant suffers through the anguish of adolescence just as much as they their bright spots. The killers aren’t the only ones dealing with self-hatred, depression and isolation.

That teen angst threads itself through all of Elephant’s characters to the point that the audience takes time to discover who the killers are. Is it the boy with the drunken father? The geek? The jock? Van Sant keeps us guessing because there’s no one way to tell. Ultimately, the finger pointing is futile; we can’t pin down the perpetrator of such horror through broad generalizations or stereotyping. In the chilling moment Van Sant reveals the killers as they enter the school, questions of “why?” accompany the existential dread. No easy answers are to be found here either. Eric and Alex embody society’s characterizations of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Van Sant places them safely within the margins that America has defined them, only to deconstruct and destroy those very notions. None of the pop psychology applied to Columbine adds up: the violent video games, the tortured art (Eric’s extended performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is the film’s musical soundtrack as well), a Hitler documentary, the satanic air freshener in the car all amount to little more than feeble stabs in the dark. Just as with the parental scrutiny, there’s more stupidity than validity to these explanations. Van Sant only plays the blame game to prove how artificial it is: all these factors may contribute but nothing can define the mentality behind such horror. (Ironically, Van Sant’s film was quite idiotically blamed as a cause of the Red Lake High School shooting in 2005—proving the director’s points about society’s tendency to irresponsibly censure various aspects of American culture.)

Through these actions, the killers are also looking to define themselves and justify their actions. Directly before they commit the atrocity, Eric and Alex enter the shower together and engage in a dispassionate kiss. Van Sant isn’t blaming homosexuality—the director himself is gay—but rather evincing the connections with others they lack. As he leans in, Alex admits, “I’ve never even kissed anybody,” and makes real contact. Though Elephant hardly offers this as the definitive answer (and I don’t doubt Van Sant would deride those who do), it’s a moment of real human connection. The only other kiss in the film occurs at the beginning when Acadia comforts a crying John with a gentle peck on the cheek. Both moments resonate as pure humanism, desperate attempts to make the sort of contact they miss through their discordant realities. Like most scenes in Elephant, Van Sant doesn’t propose an ultimate meaning or provide whole context for their occurrences—in each case, the recipients are unsurprised by what appears to the audience as abrupt—but he tenderly and ambiguously intimates his characters and elicits true human emotion.

Excepting Michael Moore’s bombastic Bowling For Columbine, Elephant is the first cinematic realization of a school shooting following the fateful April day in 1999. Comparing the two films, Elephant strikes me as a much more accurate account of the climate in which the massacre was committed and much more like a documentary than Moore’s film. Elephant fits the documentary mold not only because of its natural style, but also in its constant search for meaning. Where Bowling For Columbine has a programmed thesis and sets out to uncover examples that solely underline it, Elephant journeys for an answer and, along the way, discovers varying evidence that’s sometimes contradictory but always insightful.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

“Rumor Has It You’ve Toned Down Your Intensity”

Matt Zoller Seitz has described his debut feature Home as “a continuation of criticism by other means,” which is entirely unfair to his analysis in the New York Press and on his blog, The House Next Door. As a fan of his work for both those venues, I wish Home were a better film, but it’s only formally interesting and even then it has its missteps. Seitz observes the two-floor brownstone that serves as the film’s sole location—his own home—with a keen eye, navigating it like one of the many partygoer characters. The conversations he encounters, however, lack the sweetness to make the banal interesting and most of the actors are too self-conscious to deliver their lines sincerely. Whereas Steven Soderbergh asked his cast to perform far too actorly tasks in Bubble, Seitz’s ensemble isn’t comfortable enough in front of the camera to handle the quotidian. All things considered, the opening dialogue is difficult enough for most trained actors to wrap their tongues around. The leads stumble into their roles as if the movie were actually shot sequentially and the purposefully anticlimactic finale represents their best moment. Though Seitz often substitutes music video montages for more interesting ennui moments, the latter are often highlighted with a keen eye. Seitz understands party dynamic: he scans the room not for the short vignettes but to capture individual faces as they overhear scattered dialogue. In these moments, when the actor is least expecting it, he depicts the loneliness and suffocation of his setting. Sadly, Seitz doesn’t seem to trust this instinct and glamorizes the boozy randomness too much to rise above indie quirk. Personally, I was disappointed in Home and am hoping it just went over my head.

He still owns Dave Kehr?

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Show '06

01. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. Better performances than any of the acting winners. I wish it didn’t end.
02. Bob Altman. The man is perfect, hilarious, and poignant. He deserved his Oscar long ago.
03. Amy Adams. She’s always sublime and luminous. She didn’t win, but I can imagine her speech would be perfect. And she cried during Altman’s acceptance; I just want to give her a big hug!
04. Jon Stewart. “It just got a little easier out here for a pimp,” and the jeans joke. He was decidedly apolitical, but still very funny.
05. Three 6 Mafia. It’s true they were the happiest to be there, though Diana Ossana certainly gave them a run for their money.
06. Uma Thurman. She looked beautiful.
07. Gavin Hood’s speech. The movie doesn’t look very good, but I was genuinely moved by his impassioned acceptance.

01. Crash. The worst film of the year wins best picture. Paul fuckin’ Haggis compared himself to Bertolt fuckin’ Brecht. Hollywood will never stop patting itself on the back. Gross, through and through.
02. Rachel McAdams’s hair. She looked like she stayed in the pool too long. Not a good choice for one of the most beautiful women alive.
03. Ang Lee’s speech. The man doesn’t seem to understand the film that he himself directed, which is very scary. He also seems to have trouble pronouncing his son’s name.
04. George Clooney. There’s no man in show business more self-involved or self-important. Charmed, I’m most certainly not. Get off your high horse and make a movie with something interesting to say.
05. “In the Deep. This shouldn’t really be on the worst list since it’s the most I laughed all night.
06. That M. Night Shyamalan commercial. Yeah, that was bad.
07. March of the Penguins. I’m sorry but why the fuck didn’t Werner Herzog have at least one nomination in this category?
08. Dion Beebe’s win. For one thing, this deserved to go to The New World, but, for another, Beebe’s work is much better on Collateral. Disclaimer: I have not seen Memoirs of a Geisha.
09. Reese Witherspoon. She’s really cute in the movie and might be my favorite of the nominees, but I could do without the Southern accent and “real woman” bullshit.
10. Dolly Parton. Eat something!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In Living Color

Something New
doesn't appear to live up to its title at first, but it's truly the first great American film of 2006. Sanaa Hamri's debut film not only reveals more about race relations than Crash, but it also deftly comments on the way our culture complies with the ludicrous (Ludacris) stereotypes that movie creates for us. By presenting the White Man as Other, Hamri reveals the covert racism of Paul Haggis' condescending dipictions of minorities; that Hamri has dared to depict a caucasian as an outsider unveils the taunting nature of Haggis' generalizations. Whereas Crash exonerates its audience for its priveleged racism--Hey, everyone else does it too!--Something New challenges both the claims that race should define how we interact with each other (professed by the female romantic lead, Kenya, played by Sanaa Lathan) and that it simply doesn't matter at all (her sometimes boyfried, Brian, played with an engaging naturalism by Simon Baker). Through the conventions of the genre (romantic comedy), Hamri navigates race relations in terms of real life and not as the subject of her picture. This mode of discourse captures a racial tension (not to mention class anxiety, as well) unparalled in Crash. Hamri's film initially seems to fit the White Man as Liberator mold like so many movies last year, but, in reality, it cracks the shell that those films try to place their viewers in.