Friday, June 23, 2017

The End of the Tour

The End of The Tour (2015; dir. James Ponsoldt) is about genius, creativity, depression, and isolation. It's about a five-day road trip taken by a reporter for the Rolling Stone named David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest and other works. After Wallace's death, some twelve years after the road trip, Lipsky assembled his notes and recordings from that experience into a well-reviewed book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), that became the basis for this film. The principal actors, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, are both very good in their roles, but it is Segal who gives a truly outstanding performance as Wallace. Rarely has an actor so smoothly and convincingly fit into a role. He made me think not of his impersonation of David Foster Wallace, but of the actual person. It's a flat performance, muted, that captures Wallace's personality, that deftly portrays the delicately interconnected strands of depression, genius, and creativity that led Wallace to his greatest works, especially Infinite Jest.

I never met David Foster Wallace and have never seen him on film either. By saying that Segel successfully impersonates his character I mean that he comes across not as the Hollywood character stereotype so common in even the best films but as a human being: eccentric and weird and strange, brilliant, depressed, lonely, and convinced that his life in the wake of the success of Infinite Jest is about to fall apart or go somewhere quite different from where it's been before.

This movie mainly consists of a series of conversations and interactions between Wallace and Lipsky. They meet and become acquainted. A wary friendship develops (warier on Wallace’s part than Lipsky’s). Wallace at first is suspicious of Lipsky but gradually warms to him, though never completely. They have arguments, they insult each other, they have moments of rapport and understanding.

Even if David Foster Wallace had never written a book, we would think of the character we encounter in the film as brilliant and remarkable. He's a deep thinker, a deep diver, in the Melvillian sense, troubled by his personal failures, or his perception of them. He loves dogs. He is protective of his parents, and when Lipksky says he wants to interview them, Wallace forbids him from doing so. He is also jealous. When Lipsky asks a former girlfriend of Wallace for her phone number so that he can (supposedly) call her for an interview, Wallace becomes enraged and accuses him of “hitting on” her. Eisenberg’s Lipsky is a three-dimensional flawed figure.  He wanders through Wallace's house taking notes about what he sees in each of the rooms. He writes down the names of the medications he finds in the medicine cabinet in Wallace's bathroom. He deliberately intrudes into Wallace's life.

Lipsky is both a reporter and writer who had published a book of short stories at the time of the film (1992) as well as a novel which was positively reviewed but not financially successful. It certainly didn't cause the sensation that Infinite Jest caused. We can sense in Lipsky (as the film portrays him) a certain jealousy or wariness of David Foster Wallace. He's quick to ask awkward questions about Wallace's bouts with depression and rumors that he was addicted to heroin and other subjects. As much as he respects Wallace, as much as he shares certain common in with him as a writer, he seems in many ways clueless. It’s difficult not to find malice behind some of the questions he asks Wallace. Yet this is an unfair statement: I don’t know Lipsky as anything other than a character in a film, and I haven’t read his book, though I plan to. 



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Moonlight

Moonlight (2016; dir. Barry Jenkins) is difficult to categorize. It opens up to the casual viewer an unfamiliar world: the world in which a gay African-American young man must live. The film is divided into three sections, with each section focused on one period of the main character Chiron’s life. It shows us a young man whose mother is a drug addict, whose father is absent, and who doesn't understand why he feels a certain way. He's profoundly lonely throughout most of the film. The first section shows him as a boy around nine years old who is befriended by an older African-American man. It's not clear at first why this man is interested in him or what he does. One could say he's interested because he recognizes a lonely child who needs help. One could say that he might be the boy’s absent father come home to reconnect. The mother and the man have difficult words together, as if they were once close. They certainly talk like people who were once married. It was only my impression that the man was the boy's father. Others who were watching the film with me had a different impression—no reviewer whom I’ve read made this assumption either, so I am probably wrong. When the boy asks the man if he's a drug peddler, and he shamefully admits that he is, their relationship ends (as far as I could tell). The second section shows us Chiron at the age of around 16. Once again, he's isolated and lonely. He is bullied by other boys in his high school who call him names. Only one boy, Kevin, seems interested in being his friend. It's with this boy that he has his first sexual experience. A few days later, one of the school bullies forces Kevin to beat Chiron up.

In the third section Chiron is 26. He's been working out, he's all pumped up, he wears a gold chain around his neck and sells drugs. He gets a phone call from Kevin, whom he has not seen or talked to in 10 years. Kevin now lives in Florida and Chiron drives there to meet him.  The film ends with a moving but uneasy and uncertain reconnection between Chiron and Kevin, who showed him affection in high school 10 years before, but who also beat him up.

The film is depressing. It's supposed to be. Such is the nature of the boy’s life at every age of his existence, from when he was nine with a drug addicted mother to when he was 16 and bullied to when he is 26 and lonely and selling drugs. Every element of this movie coheres almost seamlessly to give us a portrait of this man's life—music, cinematography, editing, screenplay (written by director Jenkins), direction. The acting is excellent, even though most of the people who appear in the film are relative unknowns. The actors who play Chiron at the three stages of his life are all wonderful actors. I would say this especially of Trevante Rhodes, who portrays Chiron as an adult. He says very little. The film shows us his face and his eyes and we can tell without being told how lonely and unconnected he is.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Sing

I wanted to watch a film that would entertain me, that I wouldn't have to think about, that wouldn't matter if I went to sleep. Sing (2016; dirs.. Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet) was the choice. For me it was a film of mindless and unchallenging content. In Sing a pig, mouse, porcupine, gorilla, elephant, and other random animals try out for a singing competition. The master of ceremonies is a koala bear, Buster Moon, voiced by Matthew McConnaughey. I didn't recognize his voice--I saw his name in the credits. Buster owns the theater in which the competition is to take place, and he hopes it will attract a large enough audience that he can pay off his bills—he’s about to lose the theater.  Sing capitalizes on earlier films that feature an all-animal cast. Examples are the Zanzibar films and Zootopia--a higher-level film that was actually fairly good. It also exploits the popularity of The Voice and America's Got Talent and American Idol on which random anonymous people from the neighborhoods and hinterlands of the United States compete for glory on a television show. Many of their performances are framed with maudlin and dramatic stories of people who climb up from adversity or personal disaster to display their talent and perhaps win a large amount of money and maybe a recording contract.

In Sing, a shy elephant who can barely bring herself to speak to anyone but who has a beautiful voice is encouraged by her family to try out. A mother pig (with 45 piglets and a husband who works so hard that he pays her barely any attention and comes home at night to sleep in his chair) sings to occupy herself, for self-fulfillment, to be happy, and when she sees an advertisement about the competition she auditions and ends up on the show. Other animals have their own stories. Various disasters and pitfalls and comic moments transpire that take up much of the film. I watched Sing, I didn't go to sleep, I was entertained, I laughed a bit, I was faintly moved by the story’s outcome which, unsurprisingly, was predictable. Sing gave me what I wanted.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Hell or High Water

In the foreground of Hell or High Water (2016; dir. David Mackenzie) are two bank robbing brothers and two Texas Rangers who pursue them. In the background is the American Southwest, not only the dramatic scenes we all recognize (buttes and spires and desert) but also small towns and cities on the verge of disappearing. The film shows us devastated landscapes: strip malls, former farm fields full of oil wells or refineries or pump stations, abandoned equipment, rotting houses, empty streets and stores. This contemporary Western drama operates on several levels: that of the robbers and the lawmen who pursue them, but also that of a deeply tragic drama of economic forces, greed, and corporate ambitions that are victimizing people who live in the old Southwest and once earned their living there.

The bank robbing brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard, lived and grew up on a farm that always struggled to survive. Their mother, who died shortly before the start of the film, took out a reverse mortgage in an attempt to save the farm, but after her death the brothers discover that nothing is left: the banks are about to foreclose on the farm and sell it to oil companies that will pump the oil that is below the now abandoned fields around it. Economic exploitation by banks and corporations and entire populations of people are of primary interest. In one scene Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are sitting in front of a store in a town that seems almost abandoned. They are staking out a bank which they believe the robbers will soon hit. Marcus Hamilton likes to make fun of his partner’s Mexican and Comanche ancestry. He makes frequent jokes that are probably intended to show his fondness for Parker but which actually hurt Parker's feelings, though he doesn't say much to show it. Parker and Hamilton are hard-bitten Southwest characters who are close friends but who can never manage to express affection for each other. As they watch the bank, Parker makes a point of telling Hamilton that 150 years in the past all the land they are looking at belonged to "his people," meaning the Comanches. He notes that the ancestors of the people who now live in this town took the land away from the Comanches, and that now the banks have taken their livelihood too. It's an ongoing cycle of exploitation, of economic cannibalism, cultural cannibalism.

Given these themes, there are no clear moral dividing lines in this film. What the bank robbing brothers are doing (robbing banks to acquire enough money to save their farm) is against the law. They understand that. But there's also a reason why they are robbing banks, and it's not greed. It's survival. At least this is the case for the brother named Toby (Chris Pine). He's never been a lawbreaker. He was married, is now divorced, is the father of two sons, and is on uneasy terms with his ex-wife. While his brother Tanner served time in prison for an unspecified crime, Toby spent the last several years before the film’s beginning taking care of his mother before she died of colon cancer. He feels he's done just about everything wrong in his life, and he plans to use the money he acquires from robbing banks to save the farm, which he will deed to his sons as a way of trying to do something good. His brother understands what he wants to do, and because he is his brother, agrees to help him. There's wild recklessness in Tanner: he loves robbing banks. He loves danger. He doesn't care about breaking the law. All of these things make him different from his brother.

Texas Ranger Hamilton is determined to catch these robbers, but he also admires the way they have planned their heists--he sees an intelligent mind at work, and he deduces many facts that turn out to be true. He comes to understand their motives.

Hamilton has much in common with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell of the Coen brothers film No Country for Old Man (2007), based on Cormac McCarthy's novel (2005). He's close to retirement. In fact, he is scheduled for retirement. But he wants a last opportunity to investigate a series of crimes and to catch the perpetrators. It offers excitement for him. It also offers him a last chance to work with his partner Alberto. Hamilton strikes me as the most nuanced and interesting character in the film. But I would also say that Toby Howard's character is rounded, three-dimensional, and nuanced. That there are no moral absolutes apparent in this film, and that all the characters in one way or the other have a conflicted and troubling past, makes for a wonderful ambiguity that becomes the film’s great strength.

Perhaps saying that there are no moral absolutes in this film is incorrect. It's difficult to apply traditional moral standards of right and wrong to the actions of the characters because of what we learn about their backgrounds, because of how events transpire. It is the cultural and economic environment of the Texas Southwest to which we can apply moral absolutes. Injustices are happening. People are losing their land and their heritage. There is a century and a half long tradition of dispossessing people from their land and their farms and their businesses. This legacy of exploitation causes the crimes that occur in this film and leads to the death of four individuals (no spoilers here).

Hell or High Water never becomes morose or too serious. There are numerous moments of humor. There are several minor or secondary characters who are clearly three-dimensional figures: they have a past even though we don't know about it--it's alluded to. We don't know about the struggle of the Howard brother’s mother to save the farm. We don't know about the failed marriage of Toby and his wife Ginny, but the film suggests that past is there. It suggests there is a past, a history, that informs every moment of action.

Hell or High Water ends in ambiguity. The film resolves major aspects of its story, but it leaves some matters hanging. Many find such ambiguity dissatisfying. The irresolution of characters whose past histories are just hinted at, of situations that extend beyond the horizons of this film, are what make Hell or High Water the outstanding experience it is.

Fear(s) of the Dark


Fear(s) of the Dark (2007; dirs. Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire) is a French animated film about terror. It consists of six mostly black and white sequences, each written and directed by a different animator, depicting unconnected but not unrelated scenarios of terror. In one sequence a young man fascinated with insects has a love affair with a woman he meets at a library. She is connected to a strange insect he found in the forest.  Although the film never really explains the connection, it certainly illustrates the consequences. One could see this sequence as an allegory of how love can turn into a form of cannibalism, of transformative terror. In another sequence, perhaps the most brilliant of the film, an unnamed man wanders out of a white snowy landscape and breaks into a house, apparently seeking protection from the elements. The dark and abandoned house turns out to be more than it seems. The way this sequence plays with darkness and light, with shadows and light, is innovative. In another sequence, influenced by Japanese animation, a young girl is trapped in a nightmare in which school bullies and the ghost of a samurai warrior haunt her. When she wakes from the nightmare, a strange menacing man tells her she needs to finish the dream and injects her with a sedative. Interspersed at various moments in the film are random geometric shapes, some symmetrical, some asymmetrical, that move around while a voice ponders existential questions and conundrums about life. In another set of scenes placed in between the longer ones, an old man with a pack of vicious dogs wanders the landscape. Each time we see him, he releases a dog to kill a victim. In still another sequence a strange beast menaces a country landscape. Although I didn't consider this film quite a success, it wasn't quite a failure. It held my interest. The different sequences were artfully done. Although they didn't add up to more than they might have, they were nonetheless stimulating. They offered a creative, unusual take on fear, on nightmares, on the night terrors with which our unconscious minds can haunt us.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

I am Curious Yellow

I first saw I am Curious Yellow (1967, dir. Vilgot Sjöman) soon after it became legal to see it in the United States, which would have been in 1972. My interest in it then was twofold: it was highly controversial for its purportedly pornographic content. It was also considered a film of the avant garde. Seeing avant garde films was a mark of distinction. Seeing films purported to be pornographic was a matter of personal curiosity. I don't remember much about it, except that the sex scenes were disappointing. It had other subjects to address and over the 45 years since I first saw it I had totally forgotten what they were. I do remember thinking at the time it was not a good film.

Recently I watched I am Curious Yellow again. I was curious to see how it held up. I was interested in whether it had any real value, whether I had missed something of significance since that time I was initially so interested in the pornography it was supposed to contain. In the late 60s and early 70s, it was supposed to be an iconic, milestone film.  Having seen it again, I have several observations:

1. It's a highly political film, focused on the counterculture of the late 1960s, on the heightened political consciousness of those years. As a Swedish political statement, it focuses specifically on the issue of economic classes, since the main character Lola occupies herself by interviewing various people about whether they believe Sweden has economic classes.  Other important political issues, such as women’s rights, the Vietnamese War, and freedom of expression, are referenced.  It’s clearly influenced by, and trying to capitalize on, the youth movement. Nonviolence is a question the nation of Sweden was debating when the film was made, and at one point the government decides to take a nonviolent stance towards invasions from foreign powers. All citizens are required to take a three-month course in nonviolence.

2. I had wholly forgotten that the film features three historical figures. One was all Olof Palme, a minister of education in Sweden when the film was being made (he later became Prime Minister and was assassinated in 1986). He appears in several scenes as himself, speaking with students and being interviewed by Lena. He's one of the few people in the film who seem coherent and intelligent. Another person who seems out of place but also as intelligent and coherent is Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Wikipedia, the interview with King was filmed while he was visiting in Sweden.  The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko also appears, talking to students about his poetry and about revolution.

3. The film has sporadic elements of social and political satire. It makes fun of government officials, of journalists, of anyone who’s older than the main character, who thinks that anyone much older than she is not enlightened or intelligent.

4. it is a coming-of-age film for Lola. She's trying to "find herself." That of course is a hackneyed theme of many films of the 1950s and 60s, and of many films since then. Lola is trying to find herself through having sex with a garment store worker (and with 23 other men on whom she keeps files), and she's also trying to develop political awareness by taking part in political protests and interviewing people about social and economic issues in Sweden.

5. In a way that should complicate it, but which doesn’t, since the film is simplistic, I am Curious Yellow is a film within a film.  Much of the action takes place within the film being made.  This is largely not a matter of import, though it does contribute to the film’s willingness to make fun of itself. Lola (Lena Nyman) is the name of both the actress in the main film and of the character she’s portraying in the film within a film, both of which, not surprisingly, are titled I am Curious Yellow.

In practically every way I can think of this film is a mess. It's not coherent. It is not interesting. Lola is self-absorbed, dimwitted, stubborn, narcissistic. The other characters are mostly not interesting. The acting isn't very good. The film drags. The editing is poor: the interviews about the Swedish economic class system go on forever. Some of them needed to be edited out. Its political positions are hazy, though we can guess generally what they are. It's not a very significant film. There's not much good I can say about it.

I think the director Vilgot Sjöman wanted to be another Bergman, who is mentioned once during the film. Instead, this is a film directed by a Swedish version of the American director Ed Wood.  Let it be noted that other commentators have a different view of this film: they see it as intelligent, humorous, innovative, a landmark.  I don’t.  As with so much else, however, I could be wrong.