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Tag: postaweek2011

It’s a Metaphor

credit Columbia Sony Pictures 2011

My students are writing their first papers of the semester now and struggling with Mark Doty’s essay “Souls on Ice,” in which Doty describes metaphors as “containers” for emotion, or tangible vessels for intangible ideas. This definition functions much like metaphors themselves: making the complex simpler, if not simple.

Baseball, of course, is a game made for metaphors, and Moneyball (2011) is full of them. In one of the last scenes of the film, the Oakland A’s assistant general manager (Jonah Hill) tries to show the general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), that some experiences that may feel like failures are really successes. He shows a great clip (is it from a real game?) of a baserunner scrambling to get to first base, then belatedly realizing he had hit a home run. There’s a pause until the Jonah Hill character says “it’s a metaphor.” Billy/Brad, exasperated, says “I know it’s a metaphor!” and we have to wonder what isn’t a metaphor in this idea-driven film. The poster at left, with its tiny figure on the great green grass, puts the main idea on display: how much difference can one man make in a giant system? or, as the slogan puts it, more commercially, “what are you really worth?” The smallness of Pitt’s figure seems to be in ironic juxtaposition to the huge black letters of his name, which tell us exactly what he’s worth.

The movie, directed by Bennett Miller from a book by Michael Lewis, is admirably cautious in answering these questions. Since historical narratives like this one can’t really have “spoilers” I feel safe in saying that Beane does make a difference to the old established ways of running baseball teams, but he still isn’t exactly victorious. The big questions asked in the film– how do you evaluate talent? what is your biggest fear? what does it mean to win or lose?– are only sketched, not reduced to glib cliches. It’s refreshing to see a film so comfortable with complex ideas and so ready to grapple with them respectfully. In that regard this film reminds me of Miller’s last, Capote, which did an equally good job of rendering abstractions on film.

The idea that drives Doty’s essay is very similar to the tentative conclusion that Miller gives us as well: “our metaphors go on ahead of us…” and they know more than we do.

Eden, Texas

I enjoyed The Tree of Life (2011) more than the people I saw it with. I agreed with them that Terrence Malick’s latest film, which won the Cannes d’Or, didn’t succeed in fully integrating its parts. The beginning and ending were surreal or abstract representations of cosmic states, whereas the middle was a relatively realistic portrayal of a particular 1950s family in Waco, Texas. That family, supposedly based on Malick’s own, suffers a tragedy which links it to some universal experience. But the film does not make it clear how the particular and universal are linked. We each had different opinions about what worked and what didn’t, but for me the middle, the family’s story, was both beautiful and compelling.
Here’s a scene from the middle that is particularly beautiful and effective. The father, played by Brad Pitt, takes a business trip and we watch the rest of the family uncoil from his repressive presence. It’s as if a rubber band snapped: the camera pans around the rooms following the careening children who jump on beds, slam doors, and laugh and shout. It’s especially moving because the mother joins them….

 

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The film uses this biblical text from Job to remind us of the joys and beauties that we too easily forget, though they are all around us. These resurrected childhood memories are lost just as the pleasures of childhood (the intense emotions, the vivid sensations) are lost, just as Eden is lost. The film’s title and insistence on spirituality is less about finding an actual god, though it often seems to be addressing one, but rediscovering that spiritual appreciation within oneself. Jack looks back on his childhood as if it is a dream-like state of the unconscious and begins to recognize that his brother’s death makes that pre-lapsarian idyll all the more precious. The joy was not just in contrast to the tragedy that followed; rather, joy and struggle are inextricably connected, as the quote suggests. This realization allows Jack to forgive and be forgiven by his stern father and it allows him a reunion at the end with his hallowed mother.

There is plenty to criticize about this film–the overbearing voice-over, the generic characters, the lack of narrative, the dinosaurs–but in keeping with the film’s ambitious scope and its own effort to find the good and the beautiful, let’s focus on the positive. We should celebrate Malick’s courage in putting this personal and idiosyncratic vision out there, though it may have trouble finding a receptive audience. Malick takes a big risk when he hedges between the personal or autobiographical narrative and the universal or metaphorical. This film lands awkwardly between the two poles, perhaps, but it was worth the leap.

Waaaay Beautiful

The title of Peter Weir’s last film, The Way Back (2010), is misleading. It suggests that the extraordinary journey of a handful of escaped prisoners from Siberia to India is all about returning home to something. And “way” is a wishy washy noun that is easily confused here with its jocular adjective: WAAAAY back! It’s unfortunate.

The beginning and ending of the film do suggest this banal faith in home and the people in it, but the film quickly moves on to more interesting matters, visually and narratively. The clumsy first and last scenes, in which some cliched plot points are given some rapid exposition, could be deleted without damage to the wondrous middle. There Weir allows his camera to veer off track again and again, while reinforcing a narrow storyline. The plot is simple: the inmates escape, suffer harrowing deprivations, and reach their goal. They lose the usual number of characters along the way, with the usual sentimental effect. The geography seems divinely designed to test and torment them: they walk from Siberia through the Mongolian desert to Tibet and the Himalayas. By the time they get to the Himalayas even Weir seems exhausted: that part of the journey is reduced to a few minutes of montage.

 

Yet by then we’ve been hooked– by the glamorous scenery in part, but also by the beauty of the visual storytelling, as Weir moves from exquisitely composed longshots to tramping feet. He deftly gives a sense of the enormity of the journey and its personal costs by shifting scales and rhythm regularly. He lets his camera stumble along with the characters, as you can see in this quick, rough scene. It begins with a slow pan across the ice then dissolves into a chaotic tumble of cuts and handheld mayhem. It’s giddy with pleasure in running, breathing, being alive. In this and other scenes Weir reveals how nature and humans can sometimes be in sync, both bursting with vivid life.

One Too Many

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part two (Warner Bros, 2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or number 7, part two, is a film with many endings. I’m sure it has at least seven if you count all the signs of finish: a death and resurrection, villains vanquished one by one, a battle won against all odds, the reappearance of favorite characters from early in the series, many well-arranged group shots, and plenty of cameras panning out and away from Hogwarts, our home away from home this past decade. And then there’s the epilogue “19 years later”….

In short, the poster that claims “it all ends,” and the media waxing nostalgic, may be premature. The merchandising machine lives on. If I sound impatient it is because I wanted to enjoy this film, as I have enjoyed several in this series, including Deathly Hallows part one– but I found it impossible. The cutting of the last book into two films leaves this piece almost incomprehensible — a rush of action sequences with few connecting emotions. The direction, again by the usually adept David Yates, feels aimless — as if all decisions were made by a committee of marketing managers who needed the camera to pan past Cho Chang one more time so viewers remember where Harry began. Scenes that should be suspenseful, like characters saved at the last second, just seem repetitive. And there are too few moments of pure glee or mischief–like when Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) giggles”I’ve always wanted to use that spell!” at an otherwise dark moment.

The sheer overflow of fun that was one of the charming features of the books and earlier films feels forced: instead of the exuberant variety we’re used to we get the “gemino” spell which multiplies everything one touches into more of the same. Many of the most climactic scenes do indeed seem to be pastiches of bits from Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and other former blockbusters. In the scene below in Gringott’s bank Harry enters a dark cave and must distinguish the “authentic” object from the copies, just as Indiana Jones must do in The Last Crusade, part of a series that was itself a parody of adventure films. The scene both expresses and contains our ambivalence about overbundance and uniqueness: if this is art, shouldn’t it be special and unique? but if it is to make money, and be loved my millions, shouldn’t it be mass produced? Voldemort, who has divided his soul into pieces, shows how unsustainable that paradox is.

Overall, the film is more predictable than terrible, but that was disappointing. By its end it is broadcasting shamelessly: the screenplay requires characters to say that the dead “are still here,” thumping their hearts, not once, but twice. As Ron says above in one of the movie’s many self-referential bits, “you’re seriously going to try that one again, are you?” It asks Harry to have faith in love, and its characters to have faith in Harry, but the film has little faith in its viewers.

 

Love is Not Enough

Many people I respect a great deal recommended I Am Love (2010) to me.  Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film introduces us to an upper-class Italian family undergoing generational shifts. The opening credits glide through exquisite black-and-white shots of Milan under snow, which quickly establishes an emotional and aesthetic tone. The dinner scene that sets up the theme is elegantly concise and restrained. In a few virtuoso strokes, Guadagnino reveals the complex relationships within the extended family. Gradually it becomes clear that this is Emma Recchi’s story.  Carefully played by Tilda Swinton, this wife and mother has forgotten who she is: her name, her origins, her language, her feelings have all been buried under her married life. Predictably, she (and the film) will move from the shadows toward color and warmth, as a stereotypical thawing occurs under the Mediterranean sun. The premise is cliched, but that’s okay since the execution is so beautiful.  Guadagnino’s camera lingers on softened window reflections and pans across hazy mountain vistas. If only the understated performances and lovely cinematography were enough!

I’m posting the trailer because it displays my sense of the whole film as a series of beautifully shot set pieces that don’t ever become an engaging story. The rapid cuts and accelerating music seem a substitute for real suspense. As the characters become more themselves, the stakes grow higher and the film rises toward a melodramatic crescendo that does not seem justified. Perhaps losing the restraint of the film’s beginning is the point, but by the end Emma, and the film itself, has broken free of coherence as well as conformity. The film’s subplot about the fate of the family business is left unresolved just as many relationships are left dangling. Guadagnino implies that all we need is love…but art, at least, needs more.