Thursday, July 28, 2005

Triplets of Belleville

This movie very nearly defies reviewing - not because it's especially good or bad - but simply because it's hard to describe. It's in French, but there are no subtitles because there's no real dialogue. There are both good guys and bad guys, but the conflict between them never truly reaches an emotional climax. It's about a boy and his grandmother and the title refers to a trio of singing sisters whom the grandmother meets halfway through the film, but that doesn't really matter because, when it comes down to it, the most sympathetic character is the dog.

Do you see what I'm getting at? In the end, however, the story is quite simple. Probably because the story's not the point. Not even close.

The Triplets of Belleville is an extended animated ballet. It is an exercise in rhythm, color, and shape. It is dark and grotesque but also bright and beautiful and the whole thing is infused with a cool Francophone jazz score. It's not a masterpiece, but oh boy is it weird and magnificent. You really just need to see it to understand.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Annie Hall

Before I begin, a warning: if you haven't seen Annie Hall and you don't want to acquaint yourself with the whole plot before seeing it, stop reading right now.


Uncharacteristically, I didn't watch a movie last night. However, sifting through some old e-mails I came across a conversation I had with a friend about a movie I've watched many times: Annie Hall. Although my friend (who, for the sake of protecting her identity, I will refer to as Maggie) and I both love (or lurve, rather) this Woody Allen masterpiece, we had starkly different interpretations of the movie's tone and what it meant. While Maggie thought the end was depressing and sad, I took (and still take) a somewhat opposite position. In my opinion, the movie has a happy ending; although there is certainly more than just a tint of melancholy to Annie and Alvy's breakup, this wispy atmosphere of sadness is entirely eclipsed by the existentialist optimism of the film's conclusion.

For Maggie (and I apologize to her here, because I am sure that I will not be able to do justice to her well thought out and cleverly worded argument), Annie Hall was about the end of an affair and all the pain that this failed relationship brings with it. In the beginning, Annie and Alvy's relationship is filled with playful and adoring banter, but by the movie's end it's replaced with thinly veiled aggression and vicious anger. Even the final scene, in which Annie and Alvy ultimately become friends, added up to sadness for Maggie, who claimed that it was awful to feel something tantamount to emotional indifference for someone in whom you had invested so much of yourself, in terms of time, feeling, and energy. To her, this represents lost time and wasted emotion: an admission of defeat.

As true as this may be for Maggie and many other people, it is not true within the context of the movie. I will agree that the scenes depicting Annie and Alvy's relationship in its death throes are sad and hard to watch, but that is not how the movie ends. After failing to convince Annie to leave her life in L.A. and return to New York with him, the film jumps ahead and we cut to two actors rehearsing a scene. They are a "fictional" Annie and Alvy going through a fictionalized version of their final argument in L.A., which, of course, we have just seen. Except, in this one, "Alvy" convinces "Annie" to go back to New York with him. Alvy has written a play about his life, but he has taken a certain poetic license with the ending and, in so doing, he has come to terms with the end of the relationship.

When Annie and Alvy meet up again, bumping into each other by chance outside of a movie theater - Annie has, at this point, moved back to Manhattan - all of the old vitriol that had been poisoning their relationship is now gone. Admittedly, the love between them is also gone, but what remains is a sincere affection and a deep well of shared fond memories, which we then see as they meet up for lunch, ostensibly for the last time. Like someone's life flashing before their eyes just before dying, the camera takes us back, showing us brief snapshots of Annie and Alvy's relationship - the lobster episode in the Hamptons, driving in Annie's car, the hilarious accident with the cocaine - as a reprise of Annie singing "Just Like Old Times" plays softly on the soundtrack.

There is something unquestionably sad about this montage - every remembered scene, after all, is a reminder that these are events of the past not to be repeated - but there is something optimistic about it as well. Even though I just a moment ago invoked the notion of death, this montage is not so much a eulogy as a tribute. When the camera returns us to the present, we see Annie and Alvy in a long shot, happily eating lunch together. Although they are now permanently broken up, as is represented visually by the distance between them and the camera, they can still come together to enjoy one another's company and the happy sense of nostalgia that comes with it, a point that is only reaffirmed by Alvy's now famous final monologue, which he delivers as they conclude their lunch and say goodbye on a street corner by Lincoln Center:

"After that, it got pretty late and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again and I realized what a terrific person she was and how much fun it was just knowing her, and I thought of that old joke, you know, the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, uh, my
brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken,' and uh, the doctor says, 'Well why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd and - but uh, I guess we keep going through it...because...most of us need the eggs."

Having seen Annie again, Alvy remembers all of the happy moments of their relationship, as the sad moments, while far from forgotten, fade a bit in his mind. The joke he tells as we cut away from his goodbye with Annie to a close-up of him talking to the camera, is essentially an existentialist philosophy of romance and dating. Like Sisyphus endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back over him, Alvy will continue to engage in these "totally irrational and crazy and absurd" relationships and also like Sisyphus he will take joy in the process. Hopefully, however, unlike Sisyphus, he will one day find a love that will outlast the duration of a feature film and that will be his reward.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

New York City Movie

I've always liked Edward Hopper's paintings; they embrace a certain solitary introspection that I identify with. I recently came across this painting again and thought it would go well on this page, in terms of both tone and color scheme.

The Cutting Edge of Yesteryear=Old News?

In the past twenty-four hours, I saw two movies: My Dinner with Andre and Suspicion. Normally, when I see two movies (or, really, experience two of any kind of artistic expression) in a short period of time, both necessarily inform the way I experience, remember, and think about the other. I find similarities between them, see similar influences, and come up with ideas relating to one that I never would have thought of had it not been for my recent viewing of the other. It's an amazing process and it's a great way to experience art in general; it unlocks all sorts of possibilities and trains of thought, it can renew your appreciation for something old and familiar, and, most importantly, it reveals the beautiful web of influences and homages connecting everything in the whole world of art. Sadly, this did not happen for me when I watched these two movies.

Which is not to say that I didn't like them. In fact, I really liked both of them, but, let's face it, they're almost exact opposites. Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre is a postmodern masterpiece about the intersection of art and life as is literally discussed by two actors playing themselves over the course of an extended dinner scene, while Suspicion is a Hitchcock film about a woman who thinks her husband might be trying to kill her. The one obvious similarity between these two movies is that - as is the case in any great movie - the joy in watching is not in seeing what happens, but in seeing how it happens.

In My Dinner with Andre, nothing happens, in any real sense of the word; two friends meet for dinner at a New York restaurant and they talk and talk and talk until the restaurant closes. That's the movie. In Suspicion, on the other hand, plenty happens, but, as is the case with most Hitchcock films, there's little in the way of surprise. Many of the tropes of the suspense genre that he pioneered have since become hackneyed and cliché, making his films seem overwhelmingly predictable to a modern audience (in almost every Hitchcock film, the killer turns out to be the first suspicious character to have the bad luck to wander in front of the camera).

As annoying as Andre's apparent inactivity and Suspicion's predictability may seem, they do have the pleasant side effect of allowing for - and, in fact, encouraging - a different kind of appreciation for these films. The viewers of these two movies have the distinct pleasure of focusing on the narrative and visual methods employed by these two great directors to get us from point A to point B. I admire Malle for his use of bare-bones camera work in conjunction with a subtly pervasive production design, both of which draw the viewer deeper and deeper into Wally and Andre's conversation, inviting him/her to participate by pondering the very questions that the two characters are discussing. Hitchcock, on the other hand, has a wonderful hand for omenous foreshadowing that has since been imitated to death, but never quite properly reproduced.

Malle and Hitchcock were both pioneers of cinematic style in their own way. My Dinner with Andre had the daring to break the fourth wall, not by having the fictional characters speak directly to the camera, but by fictionalizing real people - Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play themselves, wrote their own dialogue, and discuss events from their actual "real life" lives throughout the movie - thereby blurring the line between art and reality and possibly paving the way for the contemporary phenomenon of reality TV. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was a veritable trailblazer for suspense movies; he practically invented the genre.

The question, then, is not whether these two movies (and their auteur directors) were influential, but whether they have aged well and are still relevant to the modern viewer. In the case of My Dinner with Andre, the answer is a triumphant yes. The topics discussed by this movie - specifically the question of whether there is more truth in life or in art - are still pertinent today and the form in which they are presented is still stunning and impressive. Sadly for Hitchcock, the answer is less enthusiastic. The answer is still yes - Hitchcock still has a lot to offer in areas like camerawork (specifically in films like Rear Window) - but my appreciation of his work has taken on a certain element of irony. Perhaps it's because he was working in what is to me a more distant time than Louis Malle was, thus making his latent misogyny and occasionally melodramatic staging seem more campy than anything else. Even when allowing for the passage of time and the shifting of cultural mores, I think Malle and My Dinner with Andre are the clear winners; the style and content of this film really transcend time and space and, barring a major shift in Western culture, will continue to touch the core of what it means to be happy and successful in society.

Perhaps this comparison isn't fair. In fact, I know it isn't. These two movies are from two different times and two different genres and it doesn't seem to me that Hitchcock had anywhere near the same ambitions with Suspicion that Malle did with My Dinner with Andre. All the same, they exist in the same canon and it's only natural for comparisons to be made.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

My first post.

Like a first date, this post will be a little awkward. Until I get comfortable here, I'm going to have to be a little more formal than necessary. Don't worry. I'll loosen up with time.

Here we go, my take (which may or may not be published elsewhere some time soon) on Me and You and Everyone We Know:

Love in the Time of Internet

Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July’s brilliant award-winning new film, tells the interlocking stories of a lonely shoe salesman, his two sons, a quirky video artist, a smitten senior citizen, a seemingly cold-hearted museum director, two sexually curious teenage girls, and a young girl obsessively collecting items for her dowry. Each of these characters is isolated, unable to properly connect with the people around them, guarding themselves from the vulnerability of true emotional connection.

In the opening scene of the movie, Richard the lonely shoe salesman (John Hawkes) douses his hand in lighter fluid and lights it on fire, an act he later describes as trying to save his life. What he’s trying to do is maintain a connection with his sons as he and his wife separate, to mark this transition in their lives with a magic trick that would exhibit his continuing control over his life in spite of adverse circumstances. Unfortunately, as he admits later on, he realizes too late that he needed to use alcohol instead of lighter fluid for the trick to work and, as a result, he communicates only his own incompetence by badly burning his hand.

This scene sets the tone for much of the movie. Ostensibly, Richard goes outside to perform this act of self-immolation so that he won’t accidentally set the house aflame, but the pane of glass separating him from his sons also serves to establish an emotional distance between them; in a way, it makes this gesture – as extreme as it may be – far less real than an actual conversation would be. The glass of the window is much like the glass of a computer screen and accordingly his sons Peter and Robby – played by newcomers Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff, respectively – look upon him with the same detachment and indifference registered on their faces as when they surf the internet. Richard makes an emotionally guarded attempt to connect with his sons and, because of its indirect nature and inscrutability, he fails.

From this point onward, Me and You and Everyone We Know skillfully highlights the ubiquity of this fear of emotional vulnerability. Occasionally, the dialogue that relates most directly to this theme – such as Richard’s explanation of the protocol of helping customers try on shoes – comes off as clunky and heavy-handed, but these brief moments of verbal awkwardness quickly fall to the wayside in the light of the overwhelming cogency and clarity of July’s vision. As writer, director, and actor, she depicts a world of swirling insularity, in which people come in contact with one another, but never touch, not because they can’t, but because they are afraid to. Intimacy is an object of both intense desire and intense fear, and, as a result, social interaction becomes a playful yet guarded dance, in which the characters leave everything up to interpretation.

At no point does the film communicate this notion more beautifully and clearly than in a romantically-charged conversation between Richard and Christine, the quirky video artist played by July, as they walk to their cars. Having determined that their paths will diverge in a little over a block, they flirtatiously measure their remaining time together not as a brief encounter on an anonymous sidewalk, but as a long-term relationship where every one of their steps represents years of their lives together. The camera captures them individually – cutting back and forth – in jumpy, handheld shots that draw the viewer into this romantic metaphor, but also display that Richard and Christine are too wrapped up in the text of the metaphor itself to take note of its actual meaning. Only at the end of their walk do they realize the weight of their words and, accordingly, occupy the same frame. Their response, however, to this prospect of intimacy is not enthusiasm but fear. They recoil from one another as the camera reverts to steady, static shots that once again remove the viewer from the action.

Overlaid upon this romance is a subplot surrounding the character of Nancy (Tracy Wright), the director of the local contemporary art museum where Christine is trying to exhibit her video art. Cool, confident, and seemingly emotionless, Nancy’s character is not a person so much as the spirit of the film itself. While discussing the relative merits of various pieces of art in the context of the digital age, she makes the off-handed comment that “E-mail wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for AIDS,” explaining how fear of disease sparked a pervasive culture of isolation and insularity and created the digital age. There would be no more touching, no more face-to-face interaction; everything would be filtered through another medium, through the internet, through email. Although electronic correspondence only plays a small role in the actual plot of the movie, this culture of separation infuses itself into every interpersonal relationship in the film, crippling them with the semblance of safety offered by distance.

Hawkes and July both deliver outstanding, touching performances as their characters attempt to overcome the self-imposed barriers between them. Hawkes’ Richard is a sensitive, caring, and sentimental character. In an earlier era of cinema, a man like him would stride through a film confident and untroubled; he knows how to connect with people in the context of a bygone era, but not in Nancy’s digital age. Rather than impressing us with a sense of potent masculinity, Hawkes’ weaselish looks imbue Richard with a pathetic charm as his characterizations alternate between wide-eyed wonderment and momentary euphoria to contemplative sadness and overwhelming frustration. July is similarly well-fit for her role (possibly because she may indeed be playing herself). Her body language, her hopeful and desperate smile, and her innocent blue eyes all speak to her unrepentantly idealistic and emotional nature.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is an unflinchingly ambitious film and, as its successes at both Cannes and Sundance indicate, it truly realizes its potential. Although the film is not without the occasional narrative hiccup, its originality and its beauty entirely eclipse its minor flaws. In her first feature film, Miranda July has captured a penetrating snapshot of the quotidian workings of contemporary society; she has revealed just how detached from one another people have become. It is ironic, then, that this film about emotional distance and isolation communicates a greater depth of feeling than any other I’ve seen this year.