Gorgeous, involving chamber piece penned by and starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory and directed by Louis Malle. Shawn is a mediocre playwright tentative to dine with an old friend, played by Gregory, who has returned from adventures abroad with newfound zest and insight. Part playful and meandering philosophical tête-à-tête, part huis clos with Shawn as a hostage slowly falling under Gregory’s allure, My Dinner with Andre has the feeling of an exhaustingly satisfying tutorial. It suggests a shift in the world, ignored by its camera, through its metonymic focus on the two men and the dialectic of their conversation. Malle is nimble and never overplays his hand; it’s the kind of impressive achievement which is modest enough to never announce itself. Even in the brio and verbosity of its script, it manages to ask questions without ever vocalising them: Should we open ourselves to that profundity which cynicism occasionally suppresses? Are we, in our inherently Western selfishness, ignorant to the world? Can art change this at all? Malle, Shawn and Gregory provide answers, tightly scripted and rehearsed, which reveal themselves hours, days even, after viewing. It’s a great film because it opens your mind to a kind of pretentiousness which has been labelled so without necessity. It lassos the mind and tears its cap off. That might be the ineffable sensation which has beguiled audiences to watch it over and over and over.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Some films begin precariously and evolve into something surprising and wonderful. Others start with a bang and fizzle. Noah Baumbach’s films are, broadly speaking, consistently charming from start-to-finish, but this one is not—it’s Baumbach’s equivalent of a Woody Allen clunker. It begins with funny, incisive observations about age, technology and generational difference, and begins to expose the anxieties that belie the foolish behaviour of it’s characters, but it devolves, rather quickly, into a simplified and needless lecture on documentary ethics, and if that sounds like a shockingly swift gear-change from subject to subject, that’s because it’s exactly how the movie feels.
Ben Stiller plays Josh, a documentarian who hasn’t released anything substantial in a decade, and who is painstakingly editing a six-hour cut of his current project which concerns itself with Eisensteinian formal experimentation and Marxist political theory. His stubbornness and implacable pride have turned him into an impenetrable, bitter, unproductive filmmaker. His wife, Cornelia, is the daughter of acclaimed documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), of the Maysles/Pennebaker school of cinema verite. She has produced many of her father’s films, a fact which is obviously a chip on Josh’s shoulder, or perhaps a prick in his ego, which deflates on command. They are friends with a similarly-aged couple played by Maria Dizzia (Orange is the New Black) and Adam Horowitz (of Beastie Boys fame), who have a newborn child and have, in Cornelia’s words, joined the “baby cult”. Unable to have children of their own, they follow the gravitation pull of youth.
Youth, in this instance, is inaccurately represented by a couple of winsome, impulsive Brooklyn darlings, Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Unbearably obsessed with analogous ephemera (VHS tapes, fixed gear bicycles), homespun produce (Darby’s ‘job’ is making organic ice-cream), new-age sensitivity (Jamie has an annoying penchant for emphasising the word ‘beautiful’ as though its a demonstration of his gentle-giant compassion) and manual process (instead of Googling what those almond-flavoured candy fruits are made of, they decide to “not know”), they embody an untenable ideal: adorable kitsch, carefree living, freshness, vigour, effortless cool. Jamie, also an aspiring documentarian, courts Josh for advice and pulls him on-board his latest cobbled-together project, involving a suicidal Afghanistan veteran, which, to the surprise of everyone, evolves into a substantial film. This, of course, triggers the second theme, sprung upon an audience beguiled by the gentle first half, about authenticity in documentary filmmaking. The connection between art and life is a tired trope below Baumbach’s skill-set.
What is most disappointing about Baumbach’s latest is the way he treats characters as structural elements rather than people. They’re almost impossible to endear, because they’re quickly compartmentalised—young and deceitful, old and frustrated—and utilised only when Baumbach’s plot requires them. Exemplary is Amanda Seyfried’s Darby. Whilst Jamie undoubtedly thinks of her as an accessory, that’s no excuse for Baumbach to do the same; she’s an afterthought, a far stretch from Greta Gerwig’s Frances Halloway in Baumbach’s previous film, the joyous Frances Ha. By coincidence, there has been rightful celebration this week over the 30th anniversary of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, with many critics revisiting the film and praising the way Hughes quickly stereotypes his characters but slowly allows them to transcend their moulds. Baumbach has shown similar foresight in films like Kicking and Screaming, but he’s unrecognisable here. In While We’re Young he pours the moulds in the first act and we watch them slowly calcify.
There’s a bright spark at the beginning of this film which slowly dims into a wet satire that you have to squint to properly understand. In the end it’s a message movie that feels forced and arbitrary. I certainly don’t think many viewers will find insight in the preachy documentary theory tangent, nor in the wildly exaggerated portrait of youthful earnestness, and the way it uses blanket terms like ‘young people’ and ‘parents’ as scapegoats for broad, cranky humour. Ultimately, Baumbach has made a film targeted towards cranky, childless, disaffected, frustrated, middle-aged documentary filmmakers, and that’s too narrow an audience for a director whose spirited characters have enchanted critics and viewers into ascribing him a Woody Allen for the next generation. Baumbach would be wise to take the sage advice given to Stiller’s Josh in this film: cut your film, shape it into something cogent and loveable, be authentic, try to make us feel what you cannot teach.
It’s difficult to measure the impact that Roger Ebert had on film culture and criticism. One invariably ends up vacillating between reverence and suspicions of populism. I was forced to observe my own adoration for Ebert when reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s recent comments on the late critic’s lasting influence. “Roger Ebert was a thoughtful and courageous person and a great popularizer,” he said, “but not, in my opinion, a critic or writer of any real importance; I didn’t learn anything about cinema or writing from him.” Maybe so. Ebert was quick to remind his loyal audience that he was not an academic, and that his views towards particular films were formulated solely from the emotional and cognitive reactions he had whilst absorbing films from the comfort of his seat. Ebert was a populist critic. He could relate to real audiences and engross them with his sharp and humane insights. This is something Rosenbaum, a great teacher, cannot do. Every critic has their strengths.
Steve James’ telling and touching portrait of Ebert’s life, legacy and last days, Life Itself, is not made for Rosenbaum apostles—it is chunkily emotional, formally breezy, unstructured and full of tropes. It also wallops in its truthfulness and stings in its bitter honesty. This is no hagiography, although Ebert’s fans (myself included; I contributed to the crowdfunding campaign that got this film made) will get their dues. The film does its duty as a life-spanning biography, cataloguing Ebert’s prolific stint as college newspaper editor, his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times, his alcoholism and rehabilitation, his on-air partnership and tumultuous off-air relationship with Gene Siskel and his marriage to Chaz Ebert, as well as his critical achievements (a Pulitzer prize, a scuffle with Andrew Sarris in Film Comment etc.). This is expected content, and it is covered entertainingly, briskly and with sufficiently thoroughness. The documentary is based, in some part, on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, from which the film’s narration is lifted.
What is unexpected, then, is the stark and discomfiting honesty with which James (and Ebert, who insists that it is also his film) depicts Ebert’s struggle with thyroid cancer, his final months in hospital, the cancer’s return and his death. This is not something that James, nor Ebert, could have predicted. Ebert’s death at 77 was, though not without portents, sudden. James’ footage from his various hospital visits with Ebert are introduced early and scattered throughout the film. Watching it, we know Ebert’s demise before he does. When it comes, it is no less brutal, no less emotional, and in its candidness, no less painful. We are then offered remembrances of Ebert’s life, from friends, fans and colleagues, as well as filmmakers championed by Ebert—Werner Herzog, Ramin Bharani, Martin Scorsese (who produced) and Ava Duvernay. They miss Ebert’s friendship, but also his beguiling, witty and descriptive criticism. I used to read Ebert’s reviews before any others, because, as far as immediate reactions go, Ebert’s were the most trustworthy and the most eloquent. There are many, many good and better critics around, but none of them have the dollop of humanity imbued in every word of Ebert’s reviews.
Perhaps Rosenbaum has a point. Perhaps, through my years of study and obsessive viewing and reading, I learnt comparatively little about cinema or writing from Roger Ebert’s film criticism. He belonged to no great school of thought apart from that of the loyal newspaperman, and his reviews were written quickly and impressionistically. But I think that Rosenbaum misses a point, and it’s a point of difference that I’ve often encountered in Rosenbaum’s work: Perhaps it is exactly because Roger Ebert was a thoughtful person and a great populariser that he was a critic of great importance. Perhaps it is because Ebert sought not to teach but to share in the experience of viewing films that made him distinguishable. Perhaps it is precisely because he avoided didacticism that he ended up teaching so many people a love of cinema. Why must these terms—person, critic, teacher—be strictly separate? Why aren’t they inextricable? Specialist critics like Rosenbaum and popular critics like Ebert often cross each others’ paths. This is a good thing; there’s no reason why the two realms shouldn’t co-exist. One lacks heart, the other lacks sophistication—together they’re an odd couple, but we’re better for it.
Yves Saint Laurent is credited with bringing fashion into its modernist epoch: think sleek and liberating women’s clothing, effortlessly stylish in design and elegant on the catwalk. In order to evoke a style which absorbed the culture surrounding it, director Bertrand Bonello has made a film which could not exist without modernist culture. In its textures you can find Antonioni’s contemplation, Cocteau’s symbolism, the rigidity and simplicity of neoplasticism, and the pop anarchism of Warhol, the Velvet Underground contributing to the soundtrack. That said, despite its stylish demeanour, it’s also another protracted biopic, and so its intermittent pleasures—sometimes overreaching in their ambition to capture French suave—are overshadowed by its 150 minute runtime and strained themes of self-destructive genius. Gaspard Ulliel is fine as the softly-spoken Saint Laurent, suggestive of the wartime traumas which fractured him without letting them take possession of his character, whilst a who’s who of French acting talent—Jeremie Renier and Louis Garrel as companions, Lea Seydoux and Aymeline Valade as muses—perform with due restraint. The heroin-laced ennui could be tedious for impatient viewers, but for those who want to revel in YSL-inspired design (the filmmakers were unable to buy the rights to the real designs, which went instead to the friendlier, more conventional 2013 biopic Yves Saint Laurent–sorry, no Mondrian dresses here) Saint Laurent is a sartorial delight, a highlight coming later in a recreation of Saint Laurent’s famous 1976 Russian collection.
Years before he hit his stride with films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Persona, Ingmar Bergman made a sensuous and understated romance about an impulsive dalliance that flourishes with passion and wilts by summer’s end. Summer with Monika is an intimate, carnal slice of life, foreshadowing the lithographic nature of his boldest works, but showcasing the subtleties, the dialogues and conversations, which underline his varied career. Harriett Anderssen plays the title role. She is said to have hated make-up, and here she plays without pretence; she’s bare, open and refreshingly ugly, like a Swedish Brando or Dean. Lars Ekborg is her clumsy, inexperienced counterpart, Harry, a blue-collar worker happy to let Monika lead their summer tryst. The film is a precursor to dozens of ‘love on the run’ dramas, including Wes Anderson’s lesser Moonrise Kingdom. Harry and Monika escape on his father’s boat to a quiet island on Sweden’s archipeligo, where Bergman himself would also reside for many decades. They steal food and cook on a gas burner; it’s a youthful utopia which, inevitably, doesn’t last. When Monika becomes pregnant they’re forced to marry and assume an adult lifestyle. He’s obliging, but the impulsive, arrogant Monika refuses to be moulded into domesticity. The denoument is quietly devastating, but it’s the sponteneity and pure elation of the film’s former half which etches itself in the mind. A scene in which Monika frolics naked at a rocky beach had teenagers sneaking into theatres in 1953 hoping to catch a skin-flick. What they got was a sobering meditation on the responsibilities of adulthood. It belongs in the upper echelon of Bergman’s oeuvre, despite dave Kehr’s insistence that it’s “minor”. Shot by Gunnar Fischer, who also lensed Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Read an obit (from 2011) on The Notebook here.
I’m not dead, I’m studying.
It’s the tail-end of my honours year, which means that the due date for my thesis is rapidly approaching. Because of my foolish tendency to over-schedule, I’ve also taken on the role of co-director at the UWA Film Society, which screens films twice a week on campus. Between these two commitments I’ve had little spare time to dedicate to the maintenance of this little blog, which has, I admit, been criminally neglected. To the few people out there who might actually read this, I apologise. I’ll be back after 18th May (thesis due date) with renewed focus and my usual scatterbrained non-complacency to rattle off some incendiary remarks about the fairly marginal year in cinema thus far.
In the meantime, here’s how I suggest you spend your hard-earned cash in the coming months. (In the dark, watching films obvs.)
Thankfully, for those of us in Perth literally gagging for some decent fodder to sweep away this awful post-Oscars dry spell, the French Film Festival is almost here! There are a smorgasbord of delights in this years program (as well as the usual commercial fare, which is easy to spot and even easier to avoid—by which I mean damn this shit is expensive) which can be easily navigated using one of the festival’s five-ticket multipass.
The first port-of-call is obviously Jean Renoir’s Le Grand Illusion (guys), for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to make obvious. It’s one of the great films, by perhaps the greatest of all directors. I assume that they won’t be showing a celluloid print (I could be wrong), but it would be worth catching in any case. There are also new films from Francois Ozon, Mia Hansen-Love, Matthieu Almeric and Volker Schlondorff making Australian premieres at the festival. These are safe bets (and I’ve seen the Schlondorff, it’s his best in many years!).
Here’s how you do it: Click here, then click on ‘Buy Tickets Online’, then click on the yellow link at the top to select a multipass. Finally, choose your sessions.
Here are the films you (probably) want to see: Diplomacy (Volker Schlondorff; The Tin Drum, The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum), The New Girlfriend (Francois Ozon; Swimming Pool, In the House, Young and Beautiful), Eden (Mia Hansen-Love; Goodbye First Love), The Blue Room (Matthieu Almeric; mostly known as an actor, but with some very good notices under his belt for this effort), Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir; you know, one of the greatest directors of all time).
The Perth Festival film season continues at Somerville and Joondalup Pines. Highlights include The Wonders, Breathe, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, and Mommy. Go see!
Daricheh Cinema and Luna Palace have announced a limited run (April 4-8) of Anna Lily Amirpur’s semi-Iranian vampire western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The movie looks all kinds of assured cool, so make sure you get tickets and prove to the distributor (Madman) that Perth audiences actually do like good films and deserve them at the same time as Melbourne and Sydney (who saw it a month ago). Facebook event here. Tickets here.
Inherent Vice (a comic masterpiece from PTA) and Top Five (a very amiable comedy from Chris Rock) opened today, and I highly recommend both.
Otherwise, don’t forgot about the UWA Film Society’s free bi-weekly screenings. Next week is the last for program #1, and it’s Herzog Week! On Monday we’re screening the classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and on Thursday we’re showing the underseen but no less bloodcurdling Nosferatu the Vampyre. Both star Klaus Kinski, in varying degrees of skull exposure. Here’s our Facebook. Here’s our website. Come along!
Program #2 (which begins 23rd March) will be announced shortly.
‘Til next we meet (on dis blog) I’ll be hunched over my laptop, furiously typing words like “cathexis”, “phallocratic” and “feminine subjective”, skim-reading Dickens, pursing through Crime and Punishment, and forging out yet another useless Arts degree. Wish me luck.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Within the intangible mysteries of Inherent Vice, through its irrational behaviour, its loose, associative narrative and its flurry of amusing names and places, what really happens? What’s going to happen next? Wait, what’s happening now? As Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest draws to a close I remain baffled, but hardly disappointed. It’s a trip, a zany stoner romp through the heartland of 70s paranoia; in through the out door and down the rabbit hole, with Joaquin Phoenix’s spaced-out ‘Doc’ Sportello as our guide on a guileless journey. If you think this sounds like the ultimate stoner-flick you’d be sorely mistaken. It might have no use for causality or narrative coherence, but it’s still a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the nonesuch chronicler of American stories. You’re going to need your wits about you for this one. Inherent Vice is, rather, like the anti-stoner film—to watch it high would be mental suicide. It omits its own cloud of contraband smoke, and the experience of watching it is like drifting away on a roaring contact high.
I guess it begins on a beach, somewhere in fictional LA, when the slinky Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) slides into the shack of one hippie dope-fiend and private investigator ‘Doc’ Sportello (Phoenix), her ex-lover, and asks him to investigate the insidious abduction of her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, a real-estate mogul. It seems like your run-of-the-mill hard-boiled noir catalyst, but remarkably, this slight ignition kicks into full throttle a chronology of events linked by coincidence, consequence and, sometimes, Doc’s own paranoid free-association. Narrating the film, and dissolving in and out of the scenery, like the patron saint of hallucinogenics, is Sortilège (none other than Joanna Newsom), whose relationship to Doc (and Shasta) is never made completely clear.
A caravansary of strange, delightful characters punctuates the strung-out search for Mickey Wolfmann, amongst them the lumbering, flat-topped enemy-accomplice Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), ex-junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) and her husband-on-the-run Coy (Owen Wilson), marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) and, above all, a remarkable Martin Short in a brief but memorable zip-line through a coke-whizzed (sub)plot as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Incredulous names and titles are flecked around ad absurdum. There is a heroin cartel-cum-syndicate of dentists called the Golden Fang, a runaway daughter named Japonica Fenway, and a cult-like asylum where a propaganda experiment and a white supremacist regime mix inconspicuously.
The novel on which the film is based is by the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose prose has long been considered unadaptable. What’s more, Pynchon has never allowed anyone to attempt it, until now. Anderson has translated the novel sentence-by-sentence into a screenplay, and saved his own changes for that easier-to-adapt format. Still, if you’ve been near Pynchon’s prose, you’d know how demanding a task Anderson set himself up for. Pynchon writes in an idiosyncratic, often impenetrable style, his sentences winding wildly in and out of deep grammar structures and veering into allusion and social commentary whilst his character sit on pause. It’s remarkable that Anderson’s film moves at such a breakneck pace; even more so when you consider that you’re rarely getting anywhere. It’s in Anderson’s framing, in the detail and movement of his shots, that he’s able to tell a story that gets any further than just the exhaustively tied-up immediate plot.
Anderson’s soiree of counter-cultural delights does not come without the foreboding atmosphere of his previous work. In all of his films characters attempt navigation in a world that spins preternaturally faster than they are comfortable with. In Boogie Nights the eighties hits with a whacked-out thud that bruises Dirk Diggler’s inflated ego and sweeps him away in a clatter of white-suited overspending, gunfire and nightmarish soft-rock. Magnolia‘s contestants—and they’re all contestants in this cheesy game-show called Life—are losing their grasp on reality so rapidly that, in a sudden rapture, frogs fall from the sky. More recently, in The Master and There Will Be Blood, his protagonists become starry-eyed at the promise of a better life—be it American greed, be it a Cause worth fighting for in a freshly warless America—and spin into their own self-created insanity. And is there a more confused and mistaken central character than Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love?
Without too carefully pigeonholing Anderson’s divisive and disparate works, there are consistencies throughout them that recur in Inherent Vice. To Doc, so perennially blazed that he can hardly etch comprehensible notes on a notepad, accepting the task of preventing the kidnapping of Mickey Wolfmann is like kicking a dusty cavalcade of problems into the atmosphere and trying to figure them out before they settle back into the dirt, only to be swept up again by barefoot wanderers. The situation develops too quickly into an insidious conspiracy for the green-brained Doc, and even for us. All of a sudden the P.I. license, Shasta Fay, and the chilled out cabin on the beach—and narrative comprehension—seem like by-products of disillusioned plan to bask freely in the hippy lifestyle that, in the sixties, seemed harmless. Wasn’t this supposed to be a rollicking stoner comedy?
Of course, it’s wildly enjoyable, even if it seems that the usual threshold by which humour is measured has been stolen and replaced by Beckett. It’s currency is absurd humour, just as The Big Sleep‘s was romance. It inherits a spot alongside that magnificent Howard Hawks film and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, both variations of Chandler’s Marlowe character, in a tradition of unstuck hard-boiled detective stories. Inherent Vice departs further from the original, via Altman’s noir subversion, and into abstraction. With Pynchon and Doc, he creates a similarly chaotic atmosphere that can be savoured through its pleasures despite lacking a firm foothold.
Hawks created a stylish noir, as craven and convoluted as they come, with primal importance given to visual pleasure and romantic crescendo. It’s all about Lauren Bacall ending up in Bogie’s arms. Altman’s Long Goodbye is a severely different beast—Elliot Gould stumbles through a beachside location and murder plot similar to Vice‘s, but it’s pangs of violence and (if you really investigate) discernible narrative can be considered a return of the bafflingly romantic original to its roots of realism.
Anderson, once an Altman acolyte and imitator who could almost outsize his idol in sheer scale and dizzying scope, can now stand on how own two feet with his own idiosyncratic style reassured. Here he takes his obsession with his master (he was an assistant director on Altman’s Prairie Home Companion) and transposes it into influence and subtle allusion—a dinner-table tableau that, for a split second, blasphemously references Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ as in Altman’s M*A*S*H (itself riffing on Bunuel’s Viridiana); an ensemble cast that is impossible to keep up with; the hash-burnt milieu and meandering spirit of The Long Goodbye—in a continuation of this legacy. Noir incomprehensibility pushed to its limits, and filtered through the mind of the American cinema’s most masterful director of the camera.
A tradition of ‘Last Supper’ allusions, from Bunuel’s Viridiana to Altman’s M*A*S*H to PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
There’s saving humour throughout the script that’s an easy grip for the logically inclined amongst us, performed rambunctiously by a zealous and impressive cast—it’s Anderson’s funniest film to date. Sportello is atrocious at his job, and only really benefits from his persistence, but Pheonix plays him with complete seriousness and perplexity. At every left turn he’s perfectly aghast—sometimes he’s aghast on the straight-and-narrow. Josh Brolin surprises with some serious comic chops, whilst Martin Short, Jena Malone and a young Jordan Christian Hearn (in his acting debut) stand out amongst the vast supporting cast. The ghostly psychedelia of the 70s is captured perfectly by production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges, who never veer into easy caricature, whilst Jonny Greenwood’s variation on the classical noir soundtrack (his best yet) compliments the choice soundtrack cuts, which include the flourishing ‘Les Fleurs’ from Minnie Riperton (Anderson’s deceased mother-in-law) and ‘Vitamin C’ from Can.
Inherent Vice is a rich tapestry of oddities, perhaps better symbolised as a magic carpet ride; a film to float away on. It will reward an adventurous spirit and leave behind those unwilling to take a toke of its equivocal substance. There is no Machiavellian pleasure for Anderson here, no indication that he’s pulling a fast one. As a sun-bleached Californian day turns to insidious denim, and as time becomes unstuck and ‘events’, the very substance of movies, swirl into a hallucinogenic storm of groovy textiles, the neon light clicks in your brain—it’s not about the chronology that leads us to the end credits, it’s about how we get there. Anderson, with Pynchon’s help, has made a film more interesting than most others, its peers Holy Motors and Upstream Color. It’s a novel of riches.
Inherent Vice is in cinemas March 12.