It took many tries to view Amour, Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning foreign film from last year. After I found a friend willing to watch a film about death and aging we then spent several weeks trying to coordinate schedules so we could watch it on demand one evening. I promised to provide sugar to cheer us up, and tissues. He and I had both been on the front lines for the death of a parent and we were going out of our way to revisit that time–
The clip above shows some of the film’s stately pleasures: Haneke’s slow pace and his patience in letting a small but telling scene unfold itself (I read somewhere that the pigeon scene took 12 takes), his attention to lovely visual details like the patterned floors in both rooms and the shadows and light at windows and doors. Most of the scene is quite static. The camera doesn’t move and there are few cuts. We see the old man (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) struggle with the pigeon from a distance and the comic element gradually becomes heroic. As viewers and writers we’re supposed to ask questions like “what does he want?” but even the question seems grotesque in this context. He wants the love and intimacy he lost: nothing that a pigeon could provide! My friend and I sobbed through much of the film, but the old man doesn’t cry. He reminds me most of Virginia Woolf watching that moth: there’s life itself right in front of her! (…then death, of course) The old man wants to reach out and grasp life too, but he is already failing. Death is such an abstraction so much of the time that I found it oddly reassuring to watch it unfurl on the screen and remember it unfurling in my father. It is a tremendously brave film.
It must be difficult to film a new and surprising martial arts sequence. In the long history of the genre and its films, hasn’t everything been tried already? The first scene in Wong Kar Wai’s new film Grandmaster (2013) manages to feel fresh though: although using atmospheric elements and a restricted palette have been done, Kar Wai spends as much time on the water as the battling men. The rain becomes an active participant in the fight– striking with force, spinning through the air, bouncing off targets. Although the melee is hard to make sense of because of the choppy editing and the darkness, it is a visual treat that sets up a film full of visual treats.
I went to see Grandmaster with someone who didn’t like it. There is no consistent story with suspense or drama. The characters are one-sided. The ending sentimental. All true. But where else can you see a close up of an exquisitely-lit coat button? Recurring patterns of feet sliding and pivoting on the floor? The attention to sensual detail (and moody cinematography) are typical of Kar Wai’s films and he arranges his moving canvas carefully. There are long swathes of gold in a brothel , then a shift to an all-white winterscape. There are brief cuts to archival footage from Chinese history in the 1930s and 1940s. Text appears on screen to move the chronology along. The film is based on the historical figure of Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), a martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee, but Kar Wai doesn’t always seem sure if he is making a biopic, a romance, a kung fu flick, or even a documentary about the varieties of martial arts in China. Nonetheless, I found the film beautiful enough to forgive many flaws.
I have the impression that most literary types didn’t like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby this summer…. but I enjoyed it. I liked the super-saturated colors, the dizzying camera angles, the speeding cars, the glamorous costumes, and the anachronistic music…. I love it when the man in the pink suit explodes into violence (see below). I love the book too, but they are two different animals. As Daisy tells Jay, “this world is made entirely out of your imagination,” and that’s what both book and film pull off. That willed act of imagination is the essence of the novel that any adaptation should try to get right, and Luhrmann has the gift. Like Gatsby, like Fitzgerald, Luhrmann dives in to his story wholeheartedly and believes in what he has made. I think the film’s attempt to show some background by cutting to Gatsby’s dustbowl childhood and war service was a mistake for the same reason: it should stick with the fictions and leave the “reality” for us to imagine. Does the film represent the book? It interprets it — as it is supposed to, through Luhrmann’s extraordinary lens.
Here’s a strange contrast: this weekend I watched Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Fukunaga, 2011) and Elysium (directed by Neill Blomkamp, 2013). Elysium is explicitly about two worlds — one for the haves and one for the have nots– but that idea was first popularized by the Victorians, so maybe that can be the point of comparison to bring these two seemingly unrelated films together. I often find film adaptations of Victorian novels to be unconvincing. Either they sentimentalize or they exagerrate. This Jane Eyre was persuasive though, in part because of Mia Wasikowska, who played Jane with understated emotion. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane is a volcano, with all the emotion suppressed by long habit and self denial. The novel begins with a scene of child Jane erupting into fury at an injustice done her. The film reorders the events and begins with a distraught and wild-looking adult Jane stumbling through a rain storm. Although the film scene emphasizes Jane’s distress over her anger, the revision works because it still introduces us quickly to Jane’s real, volatile self and then proceeds to flash back to the causes of her upset. Similarly, listening to Jane’s conversation with Edward Rochester (also well played without exagerration by Michael Fassbender) in the clip above we can well imagine why he fell in love with her, despite the social status and other obstacles that should have prevented it. No one could have ever spoken to him in that clear, honest voice before. Jane tells the truth, and it makes her free. In extreme contrast, here is a scene from another world, Earth 2154, where regular dirty ethnic people live while shiny clean white people hover above them on an exclusive satellite called Elysium. Here is a clip of a typical fight sequence: The use of slow motion and silence to punctuate the action works well, but it’s still just a well executed battle. The film’s art direction was just as wonderful as in Blomkamp’s District 9: the same cluttered frames overflowing with trash and graffiti tags. This earth is sterile, but Elysium, in its white cleanliness, is eerily empty. Matt Damon, as our proletarian hero Max, is as likeable as ever, but Jodie Foster as the cold-hearted politician is surprisingly wooden. The flaws in the screenplay are most evident in her stilted dialogue, and she makes even paradise seem unappealing. For stories of social transformation, I’ll take the Victorians, and for worlds, I’ll stick with Earth.
HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has a penchant for killing off popular and likeable characters and we lost both the good (Owen Slater and Billie Kent) and the bad (Gillian Darmity and Gyp Rossetti) in season 3. [Surprise! She's back!]
For season 4 the publicity machine is already promoting new characters played by Jeffrey Wright, Ron Livingston, and Patricia Arquette. But what caught my attention the most in the media flurry leading up to Sunday’s new season premiere were the beautiful photographs made to resemble the wet collodion process from the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1920s the process was already out of date, historically, but these sepia-colored posters with their faded images, uneven tone, and visible scratchs give a wonderful sense of the period anyway. They evoke the WANTED posters of the old West, appropriately enough, but also the full-frontal portrait styles of daguerreotypes and tintypes. Labelled by hand, the images look torn from a family album — reminding us, perhaps, of how intimately we know these characters now.