Monday, January 24, 2011

If Roman Polanski had directed "The Social Network"

The best part of The Social Network is its opening titles, with Jesse Eisenberg hurrying silently through the Harvard campus at night. Nothing is spoken for several moments as we watch and the music plays. The music is very good at building anticipation. It paints optimism and warmth in one moment, and danger in the next. It suggests a rich inner life for our protagonist. It made me feel as though I were peeling away the first layer of a mystery- not one with detectives, but perhaps an emotional mystery that would even teach me something new. It said "you have no idea what's coming, but it's going to hit you, George." It more than earned my keen interest.

I am a needy movie watcher. I need to be emotionally involved in the art I am experiencing. What followed in The Social Network didn't completely fail to engage me in this way, but hardly to the degree that this opening- not to mention the film's commercial and critical success, and the opinions of people I know- had led me to expect.

There were moments I liked, and they all belonged to Eisenberg. He really was excellent at bitterly zinging people while looking deeply wounded himself. And the ugliness of that "glottal stop" scene was an interesting surprise. And sure, I get that he's got barrel vision- he's "wired in," to cite a well-used metaphor from the film- and only gets deeper in that mind frame the more he fails socially, which is a big paradox. I get that, and it's something. It places this material a notch above "Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy."

At its best, The Social Network is an uncompromising film that doesn't pander. Yet for each thing this movie has in spades- and snotty dialogue about business, law, and computer code is definitely one of those things- it comes up short somewhere else. Most of all, it just takes itself too seriously. "I wish someone would slip on a banana peel," lamented my wife. A moment later, one of the characters seemed to take her recommendation and gave us a throwaway pratfall. But it only made us sad, like when you order blueberry pie in a diner and the filling is that gooey compote from a can. We just needed to laugh, preferably with the movie. Many, many lines were served in the manner of your favorite bad-good tv drama. Volleyed breathlessly in shouting matches. Left to hang in silence just before a character turns to exit. Or on at least two occasions, delivered after a character actually swivels around in a chair after having faced a window in reverie. Does anyone acknowledge the whiff of Dawson's Creek here? No. They're too busy trying for knock-out punches.

That brings us to Roman Polanski. Had he been in charge here, he would have owned every bit of this hamming. When his films are silly, he knowingly opens a whole can of it. Don't ever see Bitter Moon or Frantic if camp puts you off. Those two films, which Jamie and I once paired in an ill-advised double feature, are on the more guilt-inducing end of Polanski's work. (For those of you who have seen Frantic, Jamie said one of the funniest movie comments I've ever heard at the very end, when you see the garbage truck roll away: "Did he throw her in the trash?")

Think about it: this movie is so serious that it can't even wink about the fact that Justin Timberlake is in it. Polanski might have used him the way they used Paul Reubens in Blow. Come to think of it, he might have fired Timberlake and hired Reubens to be Sean Carter. Then he would have played that business with the chicken- which I think was supposed to be funny- for laughs and creepiness, and scored both. And that pathetic tantrum by Eduardo's girlfriend? Hopeless melodrama needs a good home. That scene would be so much happier in a Polanski film. He might have even let that girl burn Eduardo's building to the ground.

Polanski's new film, The Ghost Writer, is some kind of incredible trick: it seamlessly winks in one moment and throttles you in the next. There are some pretty stunning voyeuristic shocks here, and they're no less powerful for standing next to the tongue-in-cheek moments (example of the latter: that news helicopter scene was pretty silly). And how about the contrast between acting styles? Ewan MacGregor speaks at a clip, and seems to be acting lines straight out of a pithy novel; Tom Wilkinson is darkly methodical, as though directed by Kubrick; Jim Belushi appears finely tuned and rehearsed; and the amazing Eli Wallach comes out of nowhere with a bracing naturalism that shouldn't have any business here. Yet Polanski somehow waves a wand and nothing ever feels stitched together. I don't pretend to know how he does this, how he sells a story that can be comical or outrageous- but it must have something to do with his gracious acknowledgement of those very elements.

I suppose that The Ghost Writer is more traditional as a screen story than The Social Network, and that making this material so hugely cinematic was a more straightforward exercise than trying to make cinema out of the Mark Zuckerberg story. My hat goes off to the effort- it really isn't a bad film. But I'd see The Ghost Writer instead any day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

snow = movies

Since watching Withnail and I, a comedy about two young men on a ragged weekend in the country, I have been pondering so-called "cult" movies- not those that are loved for their poor quality (e.g. Troll 2), but rather those that are actually impressive in some way, as Withnail and I indeed is.

Cult movies of this persuasion:
-consider scenes more important than plot.
-consider style more important than themes.
-do not need to be taken seriously to be enjoyed, but paradoxically, have a sense of freedom and cockeyed humor that win them more respect than many movies that do demand to be taken seriously.

I could be wrong about this, but does it seem to you as though fewer movies of this kind are being made than ever before? I fear that there is almost no one left who does not demand to be taken seriously somehow, and that the appeal of perhaps wasting a bit of time, money and/or pride with experimentation is at an all-time low.

Withnail and I is an experience I would repeat any time. I find myself imagining that this was, in the minds of everyone concerned, the high point of their careers (even Richard Griffiths- when was he ever more fun?).

A round of ice skating with my girl...

...and we had our courage up to watch the film event of the season (maybe the year), Blue Valentine.

What a vast realization has been achieved here. I can't imagine the amount of work this represents. It's so beautiful and so real. I wish it had been on a stage so I could have clapped for them. (I'm never one of those people who claps in a movie theater.)

We had a lot to talk about after such a rich experience. You may know how this movie ends. I won't write what happens, but I may spoil it anyway because I'm going to write what Jamie and I think is going to happen to the characters after the ending. So... we can tell you that they're not done. They've spent years running up against the hard surface of their dilemma and have never gotten past the first step of acknowledging and articulating, together, the nature of it - how they hurt each other. In real life things are rarely as final as they are in the movies, and this movie wisely leaves things undecided at its teary conclusion- at least, no one really decides anything out loud. So most likely, one of these people is going to wind up at a library and find a Terrence Real book, and maybe then they can start working at it. The work never stops, after all.

Then the snow came back.

The Market Basket Red Box was pretty well picked through but we managed to get Please Give. Never transcendent, but comforting. Its campy, angsty quest to wrestle truth out of pedestrian life made me think of the talkative, slice-of-life Miramax movies of the 90's. I used to head out alone to see two of them in a row. There's a pantheon I carry in my head of the best examples of that decade and that style (Ruby in Paradise, The Brothers McMullen, Chasing Amy...) Please Give was made by Nicole Holofcener, whose early film Walking and Talking belongs to that list. I wouldn't say she hasn't progressed, but Please Give still gave me that old feeling.

Another night out had us giving Black Swan a try. The night was cold and slippery and presaged some of the cross-country skiing we'd be trying 36 hours later. You know, sometimes I don't mind living here at all.

Black Swan has some decent moments of horror and plenty of cringes, mostly from icky makeup effects, but that gets old. It wants to be a stylish thriller about a girl who swings from an unnatural level of innocence- coddled in a New York apartment by her mother, who traps her, creepily, in girlhood- all the way to unrestrained sexuality and danger. That premise would make a nice springboard for a film with higher ambitions than what we're afforded here. Black Swan feels too lazy, especially after witnessing the enormous effort of something like Blue Valentine. The only way it avoids a completely predictable journey from A to B is through manipulative plot twists, all of which depend on the fact that the girl can't trust her own perception or her memory- that every experience she has can later turn out to have been just a dream, or a hallucination. You can't coast on that. You need truth to sell a story, and when the very end of a film smells like bull the way this ending did, that's how you know they didn't find enough truth along the way.

What I'm saying is, I would rather just watch Jamie fall down. Faire du ski!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Love in the Movies

I have clawed my way to New York and back four times in the last two months. Our return on the penultimate occasion was a beat-the-blizzard action thrill ride, with cars sliding into guard rails and rolling backwards into the snowy woods. We were 20 miles from Boston when night fell and the blizzard began in earnest. Perhaps only 100 yards ahead were visible, and the mess of snow on the highway surface ruined any chance of us drivers seeing the paint that makes possible the crucial process of organizing ourselves into lanes. Yet the effort was well rewarded by a grocery store found still open upon our arrival, and by hot vegetable soup and crusty bread. That was the same trip when we won a wreath on Christmas Eve, tossed to us for free by a vendor getting ready to scrap a tragic heap of trees (as he hula-hooped with a four-foot diameter wreath himself).

On one of the earlier of these adventures, I insisted that we make for the Anthology Film Archives to see a show of Robert Breer short films. Breer made the short film 69 which had haunted me since I'd seen it in college, and I'd never bothered to learn more about him but always meant to. His work is abstract and experimental, and I've always recalled that 69 first interested me because without directly offering a narrative or even a recognizable image, it evoked a series of feelings that in a way added up to a story.

The program was difficult, and I give Jamie a lot of credit, first for sitting through it, and then for not pretending to have enjoyed it. The opening short, Blazes, is a low-tech assault, three minutes spent staring into a strobe light while you attempt to discern what colors and shapes are moving around in front of you. Even more of a challenge was the cruel Fist Fight, with its incoherent soundtrack and rapid cutting among images that tremble and fall out of focus. The gentle and lovely Fuji, with rotoscoped footage of the mountain seen from a window of a passing train, let us come down a bit from the high seas of avant-garde animation before we were dizzily deposited on the curb once more. I still contend that 69 is excellent, and I found that I feel about the same about Breer's material now as I did then: that while it's opaque, its energy is right there in front of me, and it really inspires me to make something.

The best Christmas film we saw this year was The Shop Around The Corner, which I picked based on an outstanding list that I found on Wikipedia that organizes not only movies that have Christmas itself as their subject, but movies which, to various degrees, incorporate Christmas into their plots, or simply use Christmas as a setting or backdrop to their stories. The film is essentially a romantic comedy, but the romance between the two leads, although sweet and well acted, is not its most interesting or memorable thread. What I loved more was the bigger picture of the shop and its employees and customers. The boss, the salespeople, the porter and the bosses' wife who never appears, but whose image is painted by the faces of the other characters as they speak of her (or to her on telephones)- each character is an individual that I cared about and wanted to follow. The world of this film is so lovingly realized, so vibrant and full of stories that even if you took away the main love story, the rest of it would carry on just fine.

Nevertheless, it reminded me of how much difficulty I have believing in love when I see it on a movie screen. Of all the hundreds of movies you've seen about two people in love, how many of them find a way to transmit a small piece of how love feels, what it is, why it happens in the first place- some glimpse of it that allows you to empathize with the characters and understand what they're experiencing? Love is usually presented to us the same way that Godzilla or a tap dancer is presented to us- as a fantastical object of entertainment, something to make us smile, but not for us to understand, think too much about, or believe in with any seriousness. Does it feel as though the filmmakers themselves really understand, or want to understand, the love they're selling? If I can't imagine that they do, how am I supposed to care about it?

I don't know how a great love story is written or told successfully, but when it does happen, it looks criminally easy to do. We reflected on this recently after seeing The African Queen. I believed in Bogart and Hepburn's characters- they were both insufferable nerds who appeared to perfectly deserve each other, and that is worth celebrating. Yet why should this be so simply and naturally true in one film and not in another? When they face down the Germans at the end and wind up in a tight spot, there really seems to be a lot at stake. The cartoonishness of the film allows you a bit of distance (we both remarked at how many moments felt exactly like a cartoon, not excluding the goofy jungle soundtrack), but in spite of the comic tone, my investment in the characters and my wish that they succeed were profound. I can only think of a few films that really bring a blossoming romantic connection to life for me, and this is one of them (also coming to mind right now are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunrise).

Yet a love story doesn't even have to be so deeply convincing for a movie to completely succeed. Take Moonstruck, which we recently watched for the hundredth time. I certainly believed that Cher didn't love Danny Aiello, but her and Nicolas Cage? It was too whirlwind, too larger-than-life, not on a scale that I recognized. But do I care? The real subject of that film is not the romance between the leads, but the romance of being in New York City, and that feeling is burning madly in every scene. And it easily provides you with quotes to repeat endlessly while tramping through that city with your wife. The winner: "I seen a wolf in everyone I ever met, and I... SEE A WOLF... IN... YOU !"

Other movies we saw recently, all recommended:

True Grit, about which has been written, at this point, everything that could possibly be said (I'll just say I enjoyed it a lot);

Secret Sunshine, which is emotionally exhausting, but strangely thrilling in its willingness to explore novel questions about religion, grief and acceptance;

The Kids Are All Right, which we'd been meaning to see for months, and which is a plenty smart family drama, in spite of its plot mechanics;

and Toy Story 3, which winds up one of the only movie trilogies in history (how many are there?) in which all three films are pretty much great.