Lots of people like this one on IMDb, but then I think The Dark Knight is still the all-time greatest movie according to people on IMDb. This was another Ozon viewing, following Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 5×2, both of which were interesting and provocative in their own ways, effectively illustrating why Francois Ozon is considered one of the important contemporary French directors. Swimming Pool came somewhere in the middle of those other two, chronologically anyway. It’s a convenient kind of film for a contemporary gay French director. By being mostly in English, it will appeal to a wider audience than his French material. And by dealing with themes of an older woman’s sexuality and her perspective of a younger doppelgänger with some sweltering sexuality, it’s able both to offer an oft-neglected woman’s view of an important issue and to cater to many very non-homosexual male viewers. A woman’s sexuality belongs to her, whether she represses it or lets it wildly flower and blossom and turn into herpes (although that of course doesn’t happen in the film).
The reason for the glance at IMDb in this instance had to do with an interest in how casual viewers interpreted the narrative. This turned out to be less interesting than reading descriptions of Ozon as a director and how intensely beautiful the cinematography was, and, even more interesting, for what reasons. Someone said this is “Hitchcockian,” that dreaded cinematic adjective that’s carelessly applied to almost anything with a degree of suspense or mystery. Just anything is not Hitchcockian, although almost anything can be said to be Hitchcockian if the term is qualified enough. Swimming Pool is not Hitchcockian. The ruse that the film plays on the viewer is quite the opposite of what Hitchcock did. Hitchcock tended to respect his viewers, allowing them pretty full access to the narrative content of the film and making that content really interesting and suspenseful. At the same time, he crammed thematic content into the narrative that often eluded the audience but served as a wink to anyone willing to take note. There was never really a question in Hitchcock’s films as to “what happened.”
Swimming Pool, like 5×2, relies heavily on a contemporary technique that Hitchcock probably wouldn’t have greatly fancied. 5×2 was told in a reverse chronology, not unlike other recent films like Memento. Swimming Pool blurs reality with some kind of fantasy – not necessarily a desirable fantasy, but something unreal nonetheless. Incidentally, it does this well. The swimming pool serves as the center of the fantasy, a kind of vortex that swallows up boundaries and foments imagination. What it also does well is set up a disturbed main character whose inability (that may not be the right word) to distinguish reality from fantasy makes sense. She’s a split personality from the beginning, and by way of her holiday in France she reconciles her two selves. For having such an intentionally elusive style of discourse, it’s a remarkably simple story. It’s the form/style where it’s supposed to count, like all of those pretentious art-house films. This one rather reeks in that regard, reminding one of the wonderful parody in Arrested Development of Les Cousins Dangereux. It’s vibrantly colored, features many lengthy shots of nothingness, revolves around sex of the most casual kind, and really throws you for a loop toward its finale. There is such a fine line between pretense and meaningfulness; they’re often mistaken for one another. In this case, it may be that a little editing could make all the difference.
Mostly Martha/Bella Martha (2002, dir. Sandra Nettelbeck) – This is one of those food-favorite films, up there with Tampopo, Ratatouille, and even moment in Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat. (Still need to watch Le Grande Bouffe and The Thief, the Cook, His Wife, and Her Lover.) It’s a pretty classic little melodrama or something like it, but quite feel-good and touching for a European film, and a German one at that. Just plug your ears during the montages to skip the awful music and savor the beautiful culinary creations. It’s simple, and the story’s been done before, but it’s really one of those nice, unpretentious little stories that you have to enjoy.
Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick) – Trying to delve into Malick (see Days of Heaven earlier), and having some trouble. These seem to have their own grammar, forcing the viewer to shift gears entirely into something more image-driven than the norm but also inseparable from its narrative content. The law is important, and there’s no escaping it ultimately. There’s a solitary joy and beauty, albeit a melancholy one, to being on the lam. And there is something quite solitary about it all, despite the fact that both of these Malick films have the male criminal coupled up with a little lady. These are really timeless, as in, without any sense of time in history. They’re their own time bombs, ticking out slowly but surely until the unavoidable cycle completes itself. These films look a lot like clichés, but there’s too much to them to be that, exactly.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963, dir. Stanley Kramer) – A comedy/satire on cinema taken to its logical ends. The whole thing is a spoof of film history, it seems, inside and out. Spencer Tracy, as the unsurpassed Captain Culpepper, is the movie audience who tries to keep tabs on all the insane plots and subplots, main characters, supporting characters, and cameos, without completely losing it. He’s inundated with more than he can keep track of while overwhelmed with his own life at the same time. There’s even a big board on the wall he uses for reference. How’s this not the cinema experience? The madness really kicks in when he fails to distinguish himself from the characters he’s been watching, delving headfirst into the craze with only one possible outcome. It’s genius in its premise and execution, particularly the scope, the cinematography, the editing, the stunts, and the music.
We seem to have come full circle when it comes to the special effects-driven spectacle movies. The law of diminishing returns has been rearing its ugly head more and more (see Transformers 2), and now even during moments of maximum CGI, explosions, and booming subwoofers, you can’t help but chuckle at it all. Maybe some of us are just aloof and snooty, or maybe we’re simply recognizing the vacuum behind the spectacle, or, better, the fact that it’s all just a bunch of colorful light projected onto a screen with nothing but dust and air a half-inch behind it. (Since that’s all that’s happening in terms of physics, there’d better be more than that happening in terms of ideas.) Not all spectacles are so vacuous, of course. Even some of the comic book movies have taken pains to have a point to them, whether dark or redemptive or both. Other epic films in the vein of a Lean or a Kurosawa are richer and fuller than the “best” “intellectual” “art-house” “indie” stuff playing at your local café/theatre. There was a point (there were many points, actually) in the middle of Iron Man 2 when you realized that, for the movie to be remotely coherent, it had to end with the permanent dismantling of the Iron Man suit/weapon/prosthesis. Of course, that doesn’t have a chance of happening. The sheer ridiculousness of the climax has Iron Man, his new sidekick, and countless drones remotely operated by an evil Russian mastermind duking it out with guns firing and rockets blazing smack in the middle of an area with an insanely high concentration of civilians. The firepower going off, both friendly and enemy, is so excessive and aimless that even the context of a comic book movie can’t forgive the fantastic lack of a single person getting hit. For this film to have even the minutest resemblance to reality, it has to acknowledge the fact that violence is bad, Iron Man should only be used defensively, and there’s some kind of blurry line between Iron Man having the right to this weapon and no one else being allowed to use it. It does these things, and so achieves the bare minimum semblance of reality
So many of these famous comic book heroes were born out of ages quite different from our own; the translation into the contemporary situation is where things get problematic. Nearly every comic book character that is famous outside of the hardcore comic book world (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, etc.) was born during the 30s, 40s, or 60s. So that’s Depression, immediately post-Depression, and Cold War eras. Many of the earliest comic books began to thrive in the 50s, thanks to television and that quintessentially 50s mindset in which you’ve got your good guys, your bad guys, and nobody else. It seems nearly ironic that these characters have been so popular in the last 10-20 years especially, at a time when we are far more pessimistic than the worst cynic of the 50s. “Hope” was briefly popular recently, but then the majority of those activists quickly forgot what that hope was, and down went their savior’s approval rating. So, for these comic book characters to thrive in the movies, they have to blur the boundaries between good and bad, which they’re all too able to do. The result is a bunch of non-heroic heroes, exactly the kind that people want these days. Superman hasn’t been popular for a long time; his comeback has been deemed a failure, whether Bryan Singer is to blame for that or not. Most people find Superman boring, excessively good, non-human, unrelatable. Could be. Interesting that Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight was so hugely popular. It appears that excessively evil, non-human, unrelatable characters are anything but boring compared to their good counterparts. For Batman to defeat him, he had to become evil, albeit briefly (violating privacy via cell phone sonar, etc.). This is a digression, to be sure…a lament that we live in a world in which badness is so much more interesting than goodness, even when pure goodness is spectacularly defeating badness.
Point being, the Iron Man movies have worked hard at relating to the contemporary situation in the world. It has to do with weapons of mass destruction, technology, danger coming from the Middle and Far East (read: classical Orientalist fears), and the problems with capitalism (while also strongly reaffirming capitalism). It’s set to appeal, however, to the repressed in contemporary, politically correct society. He may be fighting for peace, but none can deny that Iron Man does so by blowing up a lot of stuff (and maybe people?). Further, he’s rich. He lives in a mansion/compound in Malibu and owns his own company. He’s a misogynistic ego-head. He’s all about the American male’s wildest fantasies. He’s a “genius,” of course, filled with the kind of intelligence that lazy people everywhere would love to have: the natural kind, where you’re really smart without having to work at it much. He’s great at one-liners that make everyone around him feel small and stupid, but since we’re positioned alongside Tony Stark in these movies, we don’t have to worry about that. We get to enjoy being part of his insane ego frenzy. The sequel did feature an uncomfortable scene in which Stark danced around drunk wearing the Iron Man suit, following which he continued to make an ass of himself by destroying much of his home. It seems like this is the narrative low point for the heroic character, fitting easily into the traditional hero cycle. Still, Tony isn’t vilified so much as pitied. He’s living it up not because he’s “bad” at all, but because he thinks he’s dying and is trying to make the most of what life he has left.
So really, one wonders how many of the American viewers (if not others) know exactly what they’re enjoying when they go see this movie. We all know how easy it can be to turn off one’s brain while in a movie theater, but when something like this so clearly clashes with the dominant ideology and somehow maintains popularity, you have to wonder. The really odd thing about the first Iron Man is how popular it was overseas, including in some Asian countries. Granted, South Korea is sympathetic to the US, but the anxieties over anything not full-blown, read-white-and-blue, bacon-cheeseburger USA are too strong to miss. The bad guy in the first Iron Man started out to be an Afghan fellow, but he’s pretty easily silenced in the first one-third of the film. Then, a white guy (played by Jeff Bridges) shows up and just as easily steals his technology, paralyzes the guy (albeit temporarily), and amplifies the technology into something way less stone age. Idea here is, those dark-skinned Easterners can’t even be proper villains without American aid. That’s repeated in the sequel. Mickey Rourke plays the evil Russian in another great Prince of Persia-like example of gringos playing foreigners because we apparently just like them better. (In reality, this probably happens because audiences would be incredulous that a famous American actor playing the hero could really be challenged by anyone other than another famous American actor playing the villain. They could save a lot of dough by hiring a no-name, real-deal foreigner, but who would buy that?) On top of that, the villain fails to do much of anything until he’s rescued, salvaged, and then placed into indentured servitude by a rich white guy with the same basic personality as Tony Stark minus a few degrees. This unoriginal, repetitive trope (sorry, bad word) is becoming so tiresome that one wonders how audiences can keep paying for it.
One last word: Scarlet Johansson is completely awful in this movie. A-trocious.
Almodóvar loves genres: combining them, mostly. This one is a clashing of melodrama (of the telenovela sort), noir, thriller, tragedy, and probably others. He loves his women as perhaps gay men like him and Ozon do best; he’s no Tarantino, re-imaging and re-imagining women from an earlier vein to suit a very contemporary mashup more suited to pleasuring male rather than female viewers. Kill Bill may be empowering at some level, but it works more efficiently as sadomasochistic viewing pleasure for men, just like Inglourious Basterds may “empower” Jews but more than that gives non-Holocaust non-Jews something to whoop and holler about. (Read memoirs from concentration camp survivors and they’re not typically fantasizing about mowing down Hitler. They just wanted to go home.) Most women aren’t samurai, and most Jews don’t kill Nazis. Pepa in Women on the Verge never does have a “nervous breakdown,” since her superficial insanity is driven by survival in a world that’s truly insane. Who keeps Pepa together, though? Pepa does. As in Volver, men are rather non-issues here in terms of the actual social/power dynamic. They’re necessary to the narrative but unnecessary to the film. The world works in a certain ridiculous way – fate, chance, whatever – that drives women close to insanity while men tend just to float along idly or sidestep crises lazily. The women are garbed in drag queen outfits and shot in overlit colors that glory in their own artificiality. This emphasizes the façade of the world, the temptation to judge based on appearances whether glamorous or dark. The men, however, are boring on the surface and below it. As is customary in Almodóvar, there’s a film within, and the characters’ interactions with that micro-film foreshadows that in Broken Embraces: lip-synching to mute images, transfixed to the screen and subserviently fusing to it. Slicing tomatoes, making gazpacho, and one perfidia after another connect an ensemble of persons forced together by happenstance and misunderstandings. Almodóvar presumably made a film like this to relate more to the female condition (if it may be so called) rather than imagine something way beyond it via Tarantino-like fantasies. What’s more empowering than contextualizing, rendering transparent and multi-dimensional, a condition that appears to be a sickness? So we have a comic celebration of women overcoming a bizarre and inexplicable world despite men rather than because of them.
Charlie Kaufman, cinema, Coen brothers, film, Guy Ritchie, Human Nature, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jude Law, Michael Jackson, Michel Gondry, movies, quickies, Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes, The Big Lebowski, This Is it
This is It (2009, dir. Kenny Ortega) – This is what it is. A year after Michael’s death, perhaps reality has set in and his status is already sufficiently cemented as “legend” so that the earlier magic of these rehearsals is largely gone. It stands as something interesting, albeit voyeuristic, to gaze upon the withered and weathered vestiges of the guy who used to be so much before sinking so low. He’s clearly trying to save his voice in most of these numbers, so he’s not quite giving it his all. It is a happy last testament to Michael that he treats the cast and crew of his production with such gentleness and patience. “This is why we rehearse,” he says more than once. When he does croon, he sounds good; when he dances, the skinniness of his limbs almost makes his movements look more impressive than before. Okay to watch this, better to go back to earlier times for visual reminiscing.
Sherlock Holmes (2009, dir. Guy Ritchie) – As good as the first viewing, although on a (slightly) smaller screen. Also, interesting how much your fellow audience can affect your viewing. First 30 min. or so drew some anxiety thanks to some uninterested parties, who eventually left out of boredom and allowed the rest of us to enjoy the movie. Kudos to Guy Ritchie for keeping a pretty dark, forlorn look and keeping faithful to some very cold colors indeed. It just feels like London. And, as remarked before, so interesting how Downey the American plays a Brit who’s so similar to the American character “House” played by the Brit Hugh Laurie.
The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Coen Brothers) – Enjoyed this one at Seattle’s Central Cinema during bro-in-law’s bachelor party. We highly recommend the beer and (I think) the food. (As the designated driver, however, yours truly “enjoyed” a blood orange Italian soda. Hmph.) A delightful experience, although they should’ve served White Russians. With every viewing you feel more and more sorry for The Dude, so thrown into a mess not his own – he only wanted his rug back. Perhaps too, he only wanted to get a word in edgewise, but he’s verbally blockaded from every direction. When he’s finally given a chance, he sort of buckles under the pressure: “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
Human Nature (2001, dir. Michel Gondry) – This is a critique of everything: of civilization and Tarzan-like freedom. You can’t have it all either way, apparently. Charlie Kaufman wrote it, although it feels like it might’ve been composed hastily, for him. Gondry gives it his own flourishes, which help. It’s just silly, feeling like it wants to poke fun at anything and everything regardless of how fitting an outlet the film itself is. Human nature is a both-and, it wants to say, rather than an either/or, and it’s probably correct. One recalls that glorious song from The Kinks, “Apeman.”
Finally engaged in the postmodern exercise, the great artistic hybrid, that fusing of The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon that everyone talks about and about which they all basically say the same thing: yeah, it’s pretty cool. And yeah, it is. Giles Martin, after remixing the Beatles’ catalog to create the Love album, said he felt as if he’d drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa. That’s tantamount to what you do when you take the beautiful new Blu-ray remaster of The Wizard of Oz, replete with tiny celluloid grains on a 50″ 1080p LCD, and channel Mobile Fidelity’s gold disc of Dark Side through your father-in-law’s audiophile system. It is a crime to watch/listen to these masterpieces of the 20th century at such quality simultaneously, when you probably have never watched/listened to them at that quality independent of one another. But postmodernism is a crime in which we all must wallow in order to live, so it’s best to sin, as Luther himself charged us, “boldly.” There are lots of highlights, delightfully coincidental of course, in this experience. “The lunatic is on the grass…got to keep the loonies on the path” just when Scarecrow stumbles from the green grass to the Yellow Brick Road. “Home, home again. I like to be here, when I can,” just as Dorothy wakes up in Kansas after the mantra “there’s no place like home.” Best of all, though, has to be the ka-ching of the cash register in “Money” just as Dorothy opens the door of her fallen house and looks out into the colorful world of Munchkin Land. The images take on completely different meaning even more than the music does; the original soundtrack is rendered mute, overlaid with something new and giving more “volume” to the images themselves; while the music gains more power than it had before by dominating the images. Aside from the fascinating and absurd coincidences of lyric and music with narrative image, the overall effect of this arranged marriage transcends simple arithmetic. Simple addition of one of the greatest popular music albums of the century with one of the greatest visual spectacles of the same century doesn’t add up; there is a curious surplus when music is overlaid with image. It takes on something unique, which is presumably what postmodernism has tapped into. If the author is dead, we can re-author every text we can get our hands on (and in the case of many, smoke pot while they do it). Ultimately it’s good for little else than a good time and cultural immersion, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The overly proverbial movie about movies and endings and movies ending…and life and endings and lives ending. Bogdanovich has always loved his auteurs and wanted nothing more than to be one of them. The Last Picture Show is proof of that. It isn’t that this is is a “bad” film, or anything like that. There does come a point, however, when one wonders what a “good” film is, and how it differs from something that strongly resembles a “good” film. (There have arguably been too many ramblings elsewhere here about the idea of what constitutes a good film. So we’ll bypass it this time.) The Last Picture Show feels like one of those that was designed to win awards, to be called the Citizen Kane of the next generation, and so on. It’s more freewheeling and open-ended than Golden Age classics, and it’s in black and white (thanks to Mr. Welles himself), so it apparently embraces the old while reluctantly ushering in the new. But there is only a weak substance here, it would seem: morally removed half-critiques of small town life and the 50s generation, a shameful portrait of the sickness of youthful eros (nothing more or less than the quintessentially pubescent failure to keep one’s pants on), and a sorrowful acquiescence to the fatalistic repetition of all things (what they want us to believe is “the circle of life”). It’s a boy’s or a man’s world despite attempts from girls and women to play in it. They’re the ones who get hurt, the ones who are destined to fail, the ones who throw coffee pots against the wall and can only inherit things (which subsequently fail, too) from men. The failure of anything to change is all that gets the blood flowing in The Last Picture Show, and then only barely. American Graffiti grapples with some of this but far less pretentiously, and with a kind of concluding hinge transitioning into a different kind of life. It says something while this film is a lament over there not being anything left to say. Bogdanovich is an elegiac sort of guy – he apparently can’t name a great film any later than the 50s, unless it was directed by someone who thrived in an earlier time.