Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/

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Faust (1994)

Today’s cinema adventure: Faust, the 1994 feature by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, a surrealist take on the classic German legend in which a scholar trades his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly knowledge and experience.  Set in modern day Prague and incorporating the director’s trademark blend of live action with stop-motion animation, claymation and puppetry, as well as his disturbingly textural use of sound, it represents the culmination of Švankmajer’s long fascination with the tale and stands- along with his other highly distinctive work- as a major influence on more well-known directors such as David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam.

Presenting its own loose adaptation of the familiar morality fable, Švankmajer’s film borrows elements (and, occasionally, entire scenes) from previous versions by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, as well as from the early folk stories of its origin, more or less faithfully following the traditional structure of the narrative; but thanks to the director’s surrealist sensibilities, it recasts the tale in the form of a nightmarish hallucination centered around a nondescript middle-aged everyman who stands in for the mythic scholar.  When this hapless protagonist is handed a flyer in the street, upon which is printed only a simple map of the city with a location marked in red, his curiosity- coupled with some unusual occurrences in his apartment- leads him to a mysterious, ruined theatre; there, after donning costume and makeup, he begins to read from a charred and tattered script, setting in motion a hallucinatory cycle in which he enacts the role of Faust.  Assisted- and manipulated- by an assortment of other “actors,” human and otherwise, his own identity merges with that of the character he plays, and it becomes clear that his own fate is being determined by the scripted events of the ancient drama in which he has become enmeshed- in which he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, to instruct him in the secrets of the universe and guide him through the pleasures of earthly life for a period of 24 years, after which he will surrender his soul to be damned into Hell for all eternity.

A dark and moralistic story like this one, born of the same dour Germanic heritage that yielded the Grimm fairy tales and other such cautionary parables, could easily be translated to the screen laden with the ponderously heavy trappings of deep tradition and humorless Puritanism; likewise, given the fact that this legend has provided the inspiration for countless adaptations and re-inventions (from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Brian DePalma’s The Phantom of the Paradise), the familiarity of its basic plot and its themes make it challenging, to say the least, for any artist attempting a new version to find a fresh approach that might prevent predictability and redundancy from undermining the proceedings- and the audience’s interest in the outcome.  In Švankmajer’s hands, however, the entire well-known saga is transformed into an audaciously non-traditional package of surprises, each one as delightful as it is disturbing, appropriately dark in tone but laced throughout with macabre, tongue-in-cheek humor, and loaded with the peculiar blend of the cinematic and the theatrical that gives this director a reputation for visual magic that is unlike the work of any other.  A self-proclaimed surrealist, Švankmajer creates a movie that captures the peculiar flow of nonsensical logic one follows in a dream, making the experience of watching Faust feel thoroughly like a visit to the realm of the unconscious; he tells the story clearly and succinctly, but he does it through a deeply symbolic progression of seeming non-sequiturs, building a mass of perplexing puzzle pieces that fall seamlessly into place as the narrative resolves itself.  By transposing the story deeply into a hallucinogenic reality in which rules of plausibility and common sense no longer apply, the director not only allows himself free use of arcane and metaphoric artistic conceits, he manages to frame his oft-told tale in such a way that every development seems completely new and unexpected, giving us the opportunity to discover its hidden meanings and significant themes by discovering them from an unfamiliar perspective.

That perspective, shrewdly, moves the Faust story out of the medieval past and into a milieu more relevant to a modern audience; Švankmajer doesn’t exactly update his drama, but rather rehearses it within a contemporary framework.  Our protagonist is established from the outset as a decidedly present-day figure, emerging amidst a crowd of commuters from a subway station- just another anonymous drone.  He is drawn into the web that will seal his fate by a pair of men passing out flyers on a street corner, a sight so mundane in our modern world we scarcely take notice; this, of course, sets up a recurring theme for Švankmajer, that of the mystical contained within the ordinary, a motif that manifests itself throughout the film and tempts us, like Faust, with the promise of secret wonders hiding just beneath the bland surface of our everyday lives.  In our demystified era of utilitarian buildings and dehumanized masses, we long for the thrill of the unknown, a glimpse of something mysterious behind the mask of our predictable, well-ordered existence; such a revelation, however, is as unsettling as it is exhilarating, a source of terror as much as enlightenment, and therein lies the essence of Faust.  To obtain the key to this secret world, we must be willing to sacrifice our very selves, to give up everything that defines us- our souls, if you will; for to be privy to the secret workings of the universe is to be torn irrevocably from our humanity, confronted with an absolute power that renders our previous understanding meaningless and dissolves our identity by shattering the precepts upon which we build our relationship with the world.  In a modern age full of the smug assumptions and easy explanations derived from centuries of scientific exploration, the idea of an unseen order to things is perhaps even more terrifying than it was to our superstitious forefathers, whose imaginations conjured the tale of Faust to warn against delving too deeply into the hidden mysteries of life.  They feared the cost of knowledge and worldly experience was the loss of the soul, but we who have embraced these things may be more frightened by the possibility that they were right.  Švankmajer’s Faust, then, is about the rediscovery of the soul by modern man, and the disturbing notion that he has already sacrificed it.

That Švankmajer conveys all this in his movie is remarkable; but convey it he does, in a manner which gives testimony to his skills as an artist and a visual storyteller.  How he does it, exactly, is beyond the power of words to describe, and at any rate is best left to be experienced firsthand. Suffice to say that, in order to bring our modern sensibility into the mystical world of his story, he takes us into the last remaining stronghold of magic, the realm of the theater.  By trapping his protagonist into a re-enactment of an ancient text, not only does he provide the obvious metaphor of man’s fate being dictated by his repetition of the patterns of the past, he opens the door for his own use of all the tricks of the trade in the service of creating his goofy nightmare.  Puppets, both life-sized and miniature, stand in for other characters- and occasionally, for Faust, too- and interchange with live actors; painted backdrops appear in naturalistic settings, and vice-versa, patently theatrical objects and occurrences manifest in the real world, and events move freely back-and-forth between the containment of the theater and the expanse of nature, underscoring Švankmajer’s dissolution of the boundary between reality and illusion; dialogue is recited, arias are sung, ballet dancers perform, and an audience observes the proceedings, though most of Faust’s key scenes take place “backstage,” at least ostensibly.  Of course, the director’s familiar techniques of stop-motion animation are directly drawn from this theatrical background, and fit in seamlessly here- particularly effective is his claymation rendition of Mephistopheles, growing from a ball of clay into a vaguely humorous demonic face that then transmutes into a mirror image of Faust’s own appearance, giving us, once again, the mystical inside the familiar.  Throughout the film, Švankmajer utilizes all these devices to draw us along on this metaphysical journey, using his surrealist tactics to provide cryptic images that simultaneously amuse and appall us- an egg baked inside a loaf of bread, a baby transforming into a skull, a severed leg wrapped in plastic, a puppet demon sexually assaulting a puppet angel, and countless other blasphemous delights- and, in the end, achieve their cumulative goal of revealing the film’s underlying mystery.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Švankmajer also indulges his usual fascination with food, offering us numerous important scenes that revolve around eating; he also provides his trademark, hallucinatory soundscape, a collection of rustling, scratching, rattling noises that crosses the sensory boundaries to make us feel the surfaces we hear- and creeps us out, in the bargain.  The entire film, ultimately, has this effect- it’s something akin to visiting a haunted house at Halloween, in which we want to feel our skin crawl and our hair stand on end, but we want to giggle with glee over the pure silliness of it all.

Jan Švankmajer is something of a national treasure in his native Czechoslovakia, and rightly so.  His visionary work, at once quirky and powerful, represents the kind of purely artistic sensibility that is rarely found in modern cinema; with the personal spirit of a true auteur, he makes certain his films are distinctly his own, and whether or not audiences respond is not his concern.  Though much of his work has been rarely seen in the U.S., thanks to Cold War restrictions and prejudices that impaired his ability to distribute it on this side of the Iron Curtain (and, sometimes, even to produce it at all), he has gained a steady and growing following among fans of animation, surrealism, and cinema in general.  His decidedly adult adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (simply titled Alice) is partly responsible for breaking him through into Western culture, but many of his other films- including this one- have been championed by critics and other filmmakers alike, and the ready availability of the digital age has now made it possible for almost anyone to partake of the disturbing delights he offers.  Since Faust, like all of his films, is virtually impossible to describe- even stills fail to capture it, since Švankmajer’s visual sense is so connected to motion and juxtaposition of images- I strongly recommend a viewing.  I can praise it all I want, but, ultimately, it’s a movie that speaks far more eloquently for itself.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109781/

Crash (1996)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

Crash (1996)

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Today’s cinema adventure: Crash, David Cronenberg’s highly controversial and disturbing feature about a group of car crash survivors and the obsessive sexual fetishism they develop around their experience. Based on the equally controversial novel by J.G. Ballard, it was banned from public screening in its country of origin (Canada) as well as in many other countries, and released in both an R- and NC-17-rated form in the U.S. Despite widespread protest and outrage over its combination of graphic sexual and violent content, it was widely acclaimed by critics for its bold depiction of an uncomfortable and unorthodox subject matter, as well as for the cinematic prowess of its director in bringing his twisted vision to the screen.

The plot, such as it is, focuses on James, a sexually adventurous film producer whose marriage to the beautiful Catherine is spiced up by the reports they bring back to each other of their mutual infidelities. After a traumatic automobile accident requiring a lengthy hospital rehabilitation, he becomes involved with a community of other survivors that has gathered around Vaughan, a charismatic and hyper-sexual figure who encourages- and participates in- the merging of their sexual impulses with their fixation on the crash experience; James draws Catherine into the circle to join him, and with the others they explore ever-riskier fantasies in the pursuit of their dark passions. Though there is a structural arc to the story, which involves Vaughan’s role as sexual mentor and the gradual transference of his obsessions to James and Catherine, the narrative takes a back seat, if you’ll pardon the expression, to Cronenberg’s perverse fantasia of sexual deviancy.

From the very first scene, in which we see Catherine pressing her exposed breasts against the fuselage of an airplane during a clandestine encounter in an airport hangar, Cronenberg sets up his motif, a juxtaposition of soft flesh and hard metal which strives to make the viewer’s experience as close as possible to a tactile one; as the film progresses, it moves through its brief interstitial scenes- ostensibly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but in actuality merely required for establishing the next sexual scenario- into one graphic encounter after another, each one pushing us further past our comfortable boundaries and deeper into an unfamiliar realm of extreme sexual fetishism. Taboos fall away one by one as we witness erotic acts between various combinations of genders, performed in private and in public, involving sexual and non-sexual body parts, and almost always in connection with cars. This saturation of sexual imagery is not gratuitous: Cronenberg’s aim is to turn us on, certainly; but by mingling blatant eroticism with the adrenaline rush of recklessly driven vehicles, the carnage of roadside disasters, and a heavy dose of the body horror he so frequently returns to in his films, he triggers our sexual response alongside our conflicting reactions of fear and repulsion- alerting us to the possible dark corners in our own libidos and making us paraphiles by association. It’s an effect that makes Crash a highly unique cinematic experience, a sexual horror film which completely removes the distancing elements between our shock and our arousal- the subject he shows us is the object of both.

Of course, this experiment in dysfunctional autoeroticism is not for the squeamish; even those comfortable with explicit sexual content may find themselves turning away from the accompanying depictions of twisted metal and disfigured body parts, and most especially the frequent merging of the two. Those who are able to brave it out, however, might find themselves in awe of the way Cronenberg uses his skill to manipulate their wiring, like some sort of mad psychosexual scientist, to elicit responses ordinarily deemed inappropriate in the face of such stimuli. At the very least, the film begets a grudging admiration for its director’s ability to exploit the basic similarity between the primal reactions to sex and horror, and to use it in a visceral exploration of themes usually handled in the realm of intellect- the role of social conditioning in defining “normal” sexuality, the aphrodisiac effects of dangerous or forbidden behavior, and the age-old psychological connection between sex and death.

In bringing Ballard’s novel to the screen, Cronenberg (who also wrote the screenplay) updates it from its original 1970s setting and transposes the action from London to Toronto, but the underlying feeling of participating in something you shouldn’t remains the same, as does the tantalizing use of the author’s last name for the leading character, though Ballard denied any autobiographical connections (which didn’t stop eyebrows being raised when he was seriously injured in a car accident shortly after the book’s publication). To add another coincidental wrinkle, the character shares his first name with the actor portraying him, James Spader. Cronenberg’s shrewd casting adds another layer to the motif of contrasting textures, with outwardly cool, aloof performers- Spader and Deborah Kara Unger (as his wife)- colliding with the hot, rough, seething energy of Elias Koteas as Vaughan. The sparks are palpable; Koteas exudes raw, musky sensuality in every scene, making it clear how this underground sexual prophet attracts his furtive, broken followers. As a fellow survivor of the same crash, whose affair with James is the first step on his journey into dangerous obsession, Holly Hunter gives us a straight-laced, almost asexual surface that belies the ravenous carnal appetite underneath; and Rosanna Arquette, as another of Vaughan’s acolytes, is the ultimate embodiment of the film’s grotesque fantasy, a mangled sexpot encased in a set of rigid metal braces, beautiful and terrifying as some sort of steampunk sex robot- the perfect object of paraphiliac desire.

Rounding out the total package is the moody cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, which somehow gives a glossy, candy-shell shine to the dark and shadowy atmosphere of the film’s environment; and the background score, by longtime Cronenberg colleague Howard Shore, which underlines the director’s dominant concerns with a piercing, metallic guitar sound that manages to be both dissonant and harmonious.

Crash is one of those films that falls definitively into the category of cinema as art; there are doubtless many viewers who would disagree, citing its subject matter as unworthy or its deliberately titillating sexual content as exploitative. It’s a film that challenges us, that makes us uncomfortable by forcing us to cross boundaries we accept as sacred, and the first response to such material is often to dismiss it as trash. However, just like controversial works in other media- such as “Piss Christ” or “The Human Printing Press,” or the writings of the Marquis de Sade- there is a powerful voice behind this movie, one with a purpose and a need to express something about the human experience that can enlighten us despite our defensive reaction to its form. That said, it should be duly noted that Crash is not meant as entertainment, at least not for the casual movie-goer; though it is loaded with sex scenes and car chases, they are not in the nature of the ones which normally make for box office appeal. I can’t say that I enjoyed this movie- I’ve had a much better time watching other Cronenberg films, disturbing though they usually are- and I’m not even sure I can say it enriched me, in any way. I can, however, say that it forced itself into my consciousness and made itself a permanent part of my psyche, for better or for worse, and that in itself is enough for me to recommend it highly, at least to those adventurous cinemaphiles who are willing to be disturbed, or even outraged. It’s not safe cinema, but then, as the denizens of the secret world portrayed in Crash would tell you, there are sometimes more important things than being safe.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115964/

 

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Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 feature starring Harvey Keitel as a corrupt, alcohol-and-drug-abusing New York policeman whose life begins to implode as he investigates the rape of a nun.  Controversial for its graphic and frequent depiction of drug use, as well as for its gritty realism and its subject matter, it found an appreciative cult audience and helped to reinvigorate its star’s career.  Following the title character through a period of several days, it gives us a portrait of a man spiraling out of control; caught up in an arrogant game of deceit in which he abuses his power to serve his own appetites for sex, drugs, and domination, he begins to crack when his gambling on the World Series places him in an ever-escalating debt and threatens to bring his reign of excess crashing down.

Director Ferrara began his filmmaking career with violent exploitation thrillers like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45; and this movie bears a strong resemblance in tone to the grainy, visceral films of that genre.  However, though Bad Lieutenant feels as if it is going to explode with violence throughout, it has a minimum of bloodshed, onscreen at least; rather, the pregnant expectation of horrors to come is generated by its central character’s tense, broiling emotional state, a palpable force which is the true focus of Ferrara’s concerns.  The lurid world surrounding his troubled protagonist- a world of crime scenes, crack-heads, and prostitutes, contrasted with family-oriented domestic strongholds (littered with the iconography of Catholicism) and the sacred austerity of the church- serves merely as a backdrop for the one-man passion play being enacted here; the true plot has little to do with either the details of his investigation or the escalation of his self-destructive behavior, except insofar as these things affect his progression towards personal catharsis.  For despite Ferrara’s cinéma vérité approach, in which he captures the seedy New York underworld and explores the blurring of the lines between the good guys and bad guys that inhabit it, Bad Lieutenant is a film about Catholic guilt and redemption.  By paralleling the story of this man’s personal unraveling with his investigation into the defilement perpetrated against the church and the nun who represents it, the movie provides a symbolic connection to his own defiling of the sanctity of a society he has sworn to protect and his betrayal of the cultural values he has been trusted to uphold.  It’s a theme common to many films exploring criminal activity within insular communities: the conflict between deeply ingrained religious ethics and violent antisocial behavior is repeatedly seen in the work of filmmakers with roots in such cultures; indeed, it is a particular hallmark of Martin Scorsese, with whose work Bad Lieutenant shares many elements (not the least of which is the presence of Keitel)- a fact which no doubt contributed to the great director’s championing of it as one of the ten best movies of the nineties.

Of course, it would be a drastic mistake to characterize Bad Lieutenant as a religious movie; instead, it is more in the vein of a social docu-drama, an examination of the peculiarly dissociated psychology necessary for the reconciliation between two such opposing behavioral mandates.  Existing in a shadowy sub-culture where acts of violence and oppression are requirements for success and status, the spiritual strictures against such transgressions must be sublimated to allow for the needs of worldly survival; in the case of our nameless police lieutenant, this process is achieved through a mountain of hedonistic distractions, but eventually, faced with a summons to pay the debts he owes in both worlds, his guilt comes roaring to the surface despite a titanic struggle to maintain his denial.  This painful interior war is made crystal clear in Keitel’s remarkable performance; the actor delivers an intensely raw portrayal, stripping himself naked for the camera (both literally and figuratively) with a bold honesty that is almost unbearable to watch.  He is alternately hateful and pitiable, an embodiment of hubris living in the lonely isolation of a fiercely defended bubble, and when he lets the walls come down it is as intense and terrifying as any sensationalistic bloodbath- perhaps, in fact, in an age when audiences are desensitized to the excessive depiction of violence on the screen, such a harsh revelation of human frailty is even more disturbing.

The unflinching truthfulness of Keitel’s performance, which Ferrara wisely uses as the meat and bones of his film, is complemented by the director’s aforementioned documentary style; working from a screenplay by actress Zoe Lund (who appears in a small but significant role)- to which his own name is also credited, along with Paul Calderon and Victor Argo (both of whom also appear)- he seems to have relied on improvisation for much of the final dialogue, which adds to the realistic, in-the-moment feel, further enhanced by his minimal use of such standard storytelling techniques as cutaways and close-ups (though this latter conceit sometimes has the consequence of obscuring key plot details).  To complete the effect, cinematographer Ken Keisch utilizes mostly natural lighting and a stationary camera, and the action takes place in authentic New York locations; the result is a film as free of artifice as is likely possible for a work of fiction, though Ferrara does allow himself the luxury of the occasional artfully-composed shot or blatantly symbolic embellishment.

Before summing up my reactions to Bad Lieutenant, it is probably important for me to add a disclaimer: Catholic guilt is not a subject that interests me greatly.  Though undoubtedly relevant to a great many viewers and widely applicable to a larger audience by virtue of association to the larger theme of balancing ethical and practical concerns of living, it’s a subject that, for me, seems a bit exclusionary (in that it implies a special burden for a certain segment of the population) and sometimes even smacks of self-pity and hypocrisy.  That said, I can certainly appreciate the validity in an artist’s expression of their insight and observations through their work, particularly regarding a deeply personal issue connected to their cultural background and their experiences within it; I can appreciate it even more when it is handled with the degree of technical and artistic proficiency shown by Ferrara with this film.  There is no question that this is a deeply felt, superbly crafted piece of filmmaking, and even if that were not the case, Harvey Keitel’s performance alone would be more than enough to recommend it.  As excellent as it is, though, and as unique in its specificity of perspective, I can’t help feeling left strangely cold by Bad Lieutenant.  It may be that, in the end, Keitel’s character is so irredeemably unlikeable that his last ditch efforts at spiritual atonement feel like a sham, a gambler’s desperate scramble to hedge his bets- though perhaps that is part of the point.  It may also be that the whole thing feels too familiar, like a litany that has been repeated so many times it has lost its meaning- but then again, perhaps that is part of the point, too.  Perhaps this matter of disobedient Catholic bad boys is a lesson that must be repeated, endlessly and in as many ways as possible, until the world is at last ready to move beyond the bargaining mentality that allows the rationalization of atrocious acts by presuming future forgiveness through atonement; but now I’ve moved out of the realm of cinematic criticism and into that of social commentary.  At any rate, I suspect many viewers, like myself, may have difficulty finding a connection to the dreadful cycle of spiritual realignment portrayed in Bad Lieutenant; the rest will no doubt find it a powerful and meaningful experience.  Either way, it’s an impressive piece of moviemaking- and the performance at its center is certainly as fine an example of screen acting as you will ever see.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103759/

 

Cold Comfort Farm (1995)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cold Comfort Farm, the 1995 screen adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ popular 1932 novel parodying the English literary tradition of melodramatic rural fiction.  Directed by Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) and produced by BBC television for broadcast in the UK, it was later released theatrically in America, adding the prestige of modest box office success to the critical acclaim it had already received.  The novel from which it was derived poked fun at the conventions used by such authors as D.H. Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, in which life in the English countryside was depicted as a grim and gothic affair, with characters in the grip of long-festering guilt or otherwise self-defeating psychological dysfunctions, usually in connection with some shameful or dishonorable act committed generations before.  The plot of Cold Comfort Farm turns this formula on its ear, as a cheerfully modern young woman comes to live on her relatives’ country estate and sets about applying common sense and psychology to the long-standing status quo that keeps them mired in old-fashioned and unnecessary gloom.

Kate Beckinsale stars as Flora, the heroine, bringing a smart, no-nonsense charm to the character and making us easily believe in her ability to brush aside decades-old stagnation as if it were the cobwebs in a doorway.  Surrounding her as the eccentric Doom-Starkadder clan are a host of veteran British thespians, all clearly relishing the chance to sink their teeth into these deliciously ludicrous roles.  Eileen Atkins is hilariously dour as Aunt Judith, fatalistic, terminally depressed and possessed of a somewhat unhealthy obsession for her libidinous son, Seth; and as the latter, Rufus Sewell strikes the perfect satirical balance to make his vainglorious, womanizing character likable instead of insufferable.  Ian McKellen enjoys an uncharacteristically rough-edged turn as Uncle Amos, an amateur preacher, sporting a ridiculous mash-up of a rural accent as he gleefully spews his fire-and-brimstone sermon from the pulpit.  Sheila Burrell is delightfully domineering as Aunt Ada Doom, the reclusive and tight-fisted matriarch of Cold Comfort Farm, ruling her family with brittle authority as the continually reminds them that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”  Rounding out the household are fine performances from Freddie Jones, Miriam Margolyes, and Ivan Kaye, among others; and in non-family roles, there is standout work from Stephen Fry as a pretentiously progressive writer enamored of Flora, and the always-magnificent Joanna Lumley as an impeccable London widow who serves as her friend and mentor.

The screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury captures the goofy sense of fun intended by author Gibbons, sending up the melodramatic conceits of this popular sub-genre of British literature with a smart, optimistic viewpoint and a healthy dose of subtly hilarious wordplay; there are some truly memorable lines (my favorite comes from Amos as he preaches before his quivering congregation: “There’ll be no butter in Hell!”) and the plotting, though ultimately just as unconvincingly tidy as the overwrought romances  being parodied, weaves cleverly enough through its pleasant course that we don’t really mind its unbelievability.  There is also plenty of authentic English scenery- idyllic woodlands and meadows, rustic villages and farmlands, elegantly-appointed estates and salons- to provide eye candy along the way, and director Schlesinger keeps things visually stimulating by keeping his camera moving and using a wide variety of angles and perspectives- as well, of course, as keeping us continually focused on the real meat of the matter, superb actors portraying delightful characters.

Cold Comfort Farm is not a deep movie, nor does it yield a lot of stimulating conversation regarding its themes or its technique, at least not in most circles.  It does, however, yield a lot of fun; it’s smart and literate enough to satisfy those seeking intellectual diversion, yet completely accessible for the viewer with no connection to the English Lit crowd, and it provides plenty of hearty laughs for both kinds of audiences (as well as the rest of us who probably fall somewhere in between).  After all, outrageous behavior is outrageous behavior, whether or not you have read any of Thomas Hardy’s books, and in Cold Comfort Farm, there is no shortage of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112701/

Trainspotting (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Trainspotting, the 1996 breakthrough feature by future Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, a harrowing portrait of working-class youth embracing the self-destruction of heroin addiction to escape the bleak environment of economically depressed Edinburgh. Combining the most imaginative elements of the theatrical and the cinematic, Boyle’s wildly youthful, energetic filmmaking- utilizing his now-trademark innovative visual style and edgy pop soundtrack choices- makes this highly acclaimed and popular slice of the squalid life into a treat for the eye and ear, an entertaining wild ride through a nightmare world that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is horrifying.  John Hodge’s screenplay, based on a novel by Irvine Welsh (who incidentally appears in a small role), tackles its subject without ever resorting to preachiness, instead presenting the degrading roller-coaster-existence of a drug addict as a progression of events, seen from the inside perspective, which illustrate the way their habit transforms a normal, mundane life into an surreal caricature; influenced by the “kitchen sink” and absurdist theatre styles which dominated the stage and screen dramas of mid-century Britain, Hodges grafts elements of both into an electrically contemporary milieu, undercutting the grim realism of the subject matter with ironic humor and a distinctly modern cynical edge, disarming the audience and allowing us to laugh even as we are being appalled- which gives the tragic moments the even greater impact that comes with surprise.  The young cast is uniformly superb, but the undisputed standout- and rightly so- is Ewan McGregor in his star-making performance as Renton, the central protagonist; his charisma and intensity are so powerful that he remains infinitely loveable- and believable- whether he is philosophically enduring the debasement of his addiction, gleefully pursuing criminal activity to support it, or resolutely dedicating himself to rise above his sordid background.

Listed by the British Film Institute as one of the top ten British films of all time and consistently named as one of the best films of the ’90s, Trainspotting is not for the squeamish or for those uncomfortable with moral ambiguity, and it should be said that the thick Scots dialect can be difficult to penetrate for the first 20 minutes or so; but the rewards of this vibrant, influential movie are well worth the patience and the effort for those who are up to it.  Boyle may have since surpassed his work on this early masterpiece, but for sheer audacity and unabashed youthful bravura, it still stands among the finest films of his career.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117951

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock fantasia with sexy, charismatic performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, and Christian Bale, a film that has gained a loyal and substantial cult following despite the poor reception it received upon its initial release. Boldly structured in the mold of Citizen Kane, it follows the attempts of a journalist to piece together the decade-old mystery surrounding a glam-rock superstar who unsuccessfully faked his own assassination before fading into obscurity. Interweaving scenes of the writer’s quest with flashbacks depicting the rise and fall of his enigmatic subject, Haynes’ film plays fast-and-loose (deliberately) with facts and fictionalizes significant real-life figures as it pays tribute to- and laments the fading of- the musical and cultural mini-era on which its focus lies. To this purpose, the film’s designers have crafted a dazzlingly surreal and authentic recreation of the English rock-and-roll scene in the early seventies, reconstructing the peculiar mix of tinsel, trash, and haute couture that defined the look of the period, as well as the darker, grittier eighties of the film’s parallel narrative. In particular, Sandy Powell’s superb costume designs succeed in capturing both the outrageous fashion of the rock-and-roll glitterati and the more subdued flavors worn by their less-glamorous followers and fans. The sparkling package is wrapped in the vivid cinematography of Maryse Alberti, which evokes the authentic photography of the day so completely there are times you swear you are looking at archival footage.

Inhabiting this time capsule world are several superb performers, each in the early stages of their highly successful respective careers. In the key role of Brian Slade is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively embodies the ultimate glam rocker, channeling the spirit of David Bowie (on whom the character is heavily based, along with, to a smaller degree, Marc Bolan) and yet investing the performance with his own energy as well- cheeky yet vulnerable, jaded yet naïve, sexually charged yet romantic, he manifests the image of the androgynous bad boy while letting us see into the complex personality beneath it. He is matched by Ewan McGregor (as Slade’s collaborator and lover, Curt Wild- inspired in equal measure by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), who likewise presents a convincing portrait of an archetypal glam figure- but a distinctly different one, rougher-edged yet ultimately, perhaps, deeper. The two performances complement each other like a dovetail joint, and both men are at their most impressive- and mesmerizing- when they are called upon to perform in the numerous musical sequences, pulling off the full rock star act with exuberant bravado and absolute confidence. In a less showy role- but no less superb- is Christian Bale, playing the journalist and former fan who is haunted by memories of his youthful involvement in the glam culture and of his personal connections to both the iconic stars in the history he is tracing; always a deeply compelling actor, Bale is effective throughout, but he is at his best as the rosy-cheeked youth of the flashbacks, riding the extremes of his adolescent emotions as he tentatively explores his own developing sexual and ideological identity and comes of age in a heady time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Toni Collette is both deliciously tawdry and surprisingly grounded as Slade’s wife Mandy, impressively evolving with the character in an arc that takes her from hippie muse to jaded has-been; and Eddie Izzard is appropriately loathsome as the oily manager who shepherds Slade into the world of rock-and-roll excess.

Despite the considerable strengths described above, however, Velvet Goldmine is not an unqualified success. Haynes is a gifted director, justly acclaimed for his ability to translate complex and esoteric themes into a compelling screen experience, but often criticized for failing to create a cohesive whole; his films often seem more interested in conjuring elemental forces than in using them to work toward a specific purpose. Of course, such a technique allows the audience to form their own personal conclusions; it’s an impressionistic style of filmmaking, and like other impressionistic art forms, it’s not to everyone’s taste. With this effort, his passion for the period and the attitudes it represented is very clear, and he succeeds admirably in approximating the glam milieu and bringing it to the screen. However, the formula he chooses to do so creates some problematic issues: the investigative drama which drives the plot seems a brilliant device for exploring this seminal period in contemporary pop culture, allowing him to explore the what made it such an appealing time for those who embraced its spirit and why its memory and influence linger today; however, the brooding, mournful tone of the mystery- as well as the deeply personal importance placed on discovering the answers by the film’s protagonist- suggest a weighty significance at the core of the nostalgic proceedings that somehow feels misplaced. To be sure, Haynes is presenting a document of a time in which a generation overflowed with the excitement of changing attitudes and the promise of freer personal expression, a time which was to morph all too soon into a glitzy, self-centered era in which shallow, self-destructive excess would take a heavy toll; the collective loss of innocence resulting from this social odyssey certainly spawned the kind of emotional wounds reflected by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, and the healing power of reconnecting with these cultural roots, of rediscovering the spirit that generated the whole process in the first place, is clearly a major part of the film’s intended effect. In these terms, Brian Slade provides the perfect metaphor: hungry for the freedom to be himself, whoever that may turn out to be, he soars into a fantasy world made real- only to eventually succumb to the lure of nihilistic hedonism, transforming his existence into an unsustainable nightmare from which he must eventually choose to escape or die. However, Slade is not an Everyman, not even a glorified one like Charles Foster Kane, and his experiences, though they may resemble a magnified version of those shared by many who participated in the glam sub-culture and the disco era which followed, ultimately seem more the consequence of individual character makeup than a reflection of some greater social phenomenon. More germane to the group experience, perhaps, is Bale’s journalist, burned by the broken promise of his youth and seeking a way to come to terms with the deep longings left unfulfilled; but the plot on which his redemption hinges, the conceit of uncovering the secrets of a former pop icon’s decline and fall, ultimately feels forced. After all, there is no mystery to be solved- the story to be told is so common as to be predictable- and in the end, there are no real answers to be found there, only an implausible plot twist and a phantom wound that will never stop itching. To make a resolution even less palpable, Haynes’ screenplay (from a story written by himself and James Lyons) wraps the plot about a man exploring an enigma in another, larger enigma: invoking the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, he introduces a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial gem which secretly links the characters and their histories to a long procession of pop superstars, suggesting that the cycle of fame is some sort of mystical cosmic reflex which affects our social evolution, and even hinting at the deliberate manipulation of our pop culture by an unseen and arcane outside force. Another apt metaphor, and an interesting proposition- one which seems borrowed from the handbook of glam-era theatricality as represented by such flights of fancy as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, a source of much inspiration to the events portrayed in the film- but in this case, perhaps, a needless complication in an already over-complicated mix.

Speaking of Ziggy Stardust, it seems necessary to also remark that the heavy fictionalization of the figures represented- which amounts to the creation of a sort of alternate glam universe- has been a point of considerable controversy surrounding Velvet Goldmine. Taking well-known real-life icons and re-inventing them for dramatic purposes is an acceptable tactic that goes back, no doubt, to the very beginning of story-telling; however, Haynes has here blended real events so completely into the soup that the result could be very confusing to those unfamiliar with the true history of those involved. Though Brian Slade is not David Bowie, he certainly feels like it; indeed, Bowie himself, initially involved in the project, pulled his support and the rights to use his songs after discovering that the script incorporated elements from unauthorized biographies by his former wife and others. To make matters even more confusing, mixed in with the original musical selections composed for the film are older songs by such glam-era artists as Roxy Music, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, among others, performed by the fictional singers as if they were themselves the originators. Though I’m not one to quibble about adherence to historical accuracy- after all, my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, and my love for Shakespeare is in no way affected by his fondness for rewriting history to suit his needs- in this case it seems appropriate to suggest that, before making any assumptions based on the recognizability of the figures on display in Velvet Goldmine, it would be wise to do some research and decipher who these characters really are (or, rather, really aren’t).

Nevertheless, Haynes’ film provides many pleasures: the aforementioned musical sequences, mounted with a gaudy theatrical flair that captures the glitter-rock essence to a tee, are the film’s best scenes, nostalgic yet freshly minted; and there are moments throughout that reach through the layers of conceit to grab at your heart-strings, electrifying touchstones that instantly transport you to the memory of some shared, universal experience- the yearning, impossible ache of a teen-aged Bale staring at homoerotic photos of his idols; the sharp humiliation of Collette’s Mandy Slade as she confronts her husband in the midst of his dehumanized, drugs-and-sex-saturated oblivion; the explosive, adrenaline-fueled vitality of McGregor’s first stage performance as Wild (in which, incidentally, he strips naked for his adoring audience). All in all, the exponential popularity of Velvet Goldmine is not surprising, nor is it undeserved: though it may leave us unsatisfied on some nameless level, and though it sometimes feels as though it takes itself far too seriously, its youthful exuberance and its visual perfection go a long way towards making up for its shortcomings; and even if it ultimately leads us to prefer and embrace the real-world history which it distorts for its desired effect, it seems fitting and desirable to find satisfaction in that which is real rather than in a glittery fantasy- and that, come to think of it, is perhaps the true message of Velvet Goldmine.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120879/

Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (1996)

Today’s cinema adventure: Microcosmos: le peuple de l’herbe (the grass people), a 1996 French documentary depicting the behavior and interaction of various insects and other minuscule creatures as recorded with specially-developed cameras and microphones that reveal their tiny world in a staggering and beautiful wealth of detail.  Fifteen years in the making and originally shown on French television, it was marketed in the U.S. as a family-friendly nature film and became a relative hit at the box office- for easily understandable reasons.  With remarkable cinematography that rivals today’s high-def technology in clarity and depth, directors Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou construct a riveting chronicle of the world under our feet, accomplishing the improbable effect of inspiring empathy with the kinds of animals that, for most, normally inspire nothing but revulsion. Spiders, snails, mantises, ants, bees, earthworms, dung beetles and water bugs enact their daily experiences, and the titanic nature of their struggles is made visceral by the scale in which they are shown; the audience, transported into their tiny realm, is given a bug’s eye view of what it takes to survive, as well as being treated to some breathtaking footage of nature’s beauty, all to the accompaniment of a haunting score by film composer Bruno Coulais.  Even more remarkable is that, with a bare minimum of narration (provided in the English-language version by Kristen Scott-Thomas), the audience is treated to drama, suspense, and even humor, arising naturally from the behavior of the film’s multi-legged cast; the overall result is a film experience that is not only educational, but entertaining, awe-inspiring, and, somehow, strangely moving.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117040/

Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Today’s cinema adventure: Six Degrees of Separation, the 1993 adaptation of John Guare’s Pulitzer-nominated play of the same name, starring Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Will Smith, with a screenplay by the playwright himself. Through the tale of a well-to-do Manhattan couple whose lives are infiltrated by a mysterious and charismatic young con artist, Guare uses his gift for language to explore how our connections to other people weave us into a tapestry of shared experience and lead us to new perspectives on our lives and ourselves, and to subtly reveal how the parallels between us transcend the illusory differences of class, race, sexuality and culture and expose the sometimes uncomfortable truths which unite us all; however, in the translation from stage to film, the complex, literate and emotionally resonant dialogue sometimes borders on sounding awkward and stilted, the central premise comes across as contrived and unconvincing, and the powerful revelations of the play seem almost artificial and trite. The fault lies with director Fred Schepisi, who- instead of utilizing the potential of the cinematic medium to enhance and illuminate the play- has taken the rather pedestrian approach of grafting it into a straightforward narrative, expanding the action into a variety of real-world settings which only serve to distance us from the characters and undermine the cumulative power of the unfolding story. The endless progression of upper-crust social gatherings and well-appointed locations continually remind us that we are watching a movie about the problems of spoiled rich people, instead of providing us with the class-dissolving intimacy of a more abstract theatrical experience; and as a result, instead of an emotional catharsis, we are given an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, the power of Guare’s original work shines through (albeit in diluted form) thanks to the talented ensemble cast, which clearly relishes the opportunity to speak his words and embody his characters, and if the movie is ultimately a bit disappointing, they at least ensure that it is never boring. Sutherland is, as always, interesting to watch, and Channing does possibly her best screen work here- she earned a well- deserved Oscar nomination for her performance; Ian McKellen shines as wealthy dinner guest who is also taken in by the young hustler, as do Heather Graham and Eric Thal as a younger, less affluent couple whose experience with him yields considerably more tragic results.  In the key role of the enigmatic stranger, Will Smith copiously displays the charm that made him a star; but my favorite performance comes from Anthony Michael Hall, whose brief appearance as a key character steals the show and makes us keenly regret his relative disappearance from the film industry.  As a side note, from the standpoint of social history, Six Degrees represents a minor landmark in the acceptance of gay-themed subject matter in mainstream cinema with its inclusion of the con man’s homosexual trysts, which may generate interest for some viewers; for everyone else, however, it’s a film that is worth the time investment, for the sake of the performances and the opportunity to experience Guare’s script- just manage your expectations, or you may end up feeling you are the one who’s been conned.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108149/