Capsules: December 2018

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years.

Small Change (François Truffaut, 1976)

Truffaut mixes Zero For Conduct and M. Hulot’s Holiday into his own child’s-eye-view microcosm: not a plot, per se, but a real community. It’s a world where falling children bounce back up and even poverty looks slightly whimsical (just when Godard was exploring the Marxist wilderness, too). There’s definitely meat to the argument that Truffaut gives children too much credit, but the attentiveness to the joys and pains of how children and adults view themselves and each other is a tender treasure. A lovely place to visit, even or especially when it hurts.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Mizayaki, 2004)

A fable about youth, beauty, and power, and what you choose to do with them. As is so often the case with Miyazaki, I find his all-out fantasias bloated by the kind of caprice and excess that would make more sense to me if I were young enough not to expect sense. There are tangents, narrative loops, setpieces of visual design for their own sake, and an ending that feels beholden to fairy tales rather than transcending them. But in the moments when the scale is intimate, or the mood contemplative, or the visuals scaled back from trippy sensationalism, it finds such warm storybook wisdom.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961)

Billy Wilder’s follow-up to The Apartment goes full manic for a Cold War comedy closer to the loud-and-proud schtick of Mel Brooks than Wilder’s hero Lubitsch. The East-West satire is mostly limited to glib one-liners, but the pace and sustained energy astound. This is a masterclass in staging comedy in a CinemaScope frame, a juggling act with circus music to go along with it. And all the farce dials down just long enough to deliver a key line for disillusioned radicals: “Any civilization that produced William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and striped toothpaste can’t be all bad.”

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

A Rossellini crisis of faith—not just in god, though there’s plenty of that, but in whether desperate people, places, and situations should be abandoned or clung to in hope of salvage. Thus an impulsive marriage and a poor, barren volcanic island stand in for post-war Italy, with a 1940s movie queen dropped into rough quasi-documentary realism. I’ll happily watch Ingrid Bergman wander infernal landscapes—especially if it signifies, and refuses to easily settle.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

The Housemaid (Kim Ki-Young, 1960)

Say what you will about sexual repression, it’s made for some good movies. A man afraid of his desires. A young woman punished for her crush. A crazed villainess who is literally unleashed from inside a respectable girl’s closet. And all of it unfolding down a rabbit hole in a bizarrely designed house with the open question of who’s got the rat poison. It’s a bit drawn out, but insane enough to get away with a structure that would sink a tamer movie. Long live tonal whiplash.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)

Thank god for Barbara Stanwyck—mediocre scripts are as old as Hollywood, and they’ve always needed stars. This one, a big hit in its day, played at the Aero in Santa Monica as part of a series of holiday screwball comedies. It has a premise worth mining: that the most famous all-American homemaker (think 1940s Martha Stewart) is actually a front for a modern career gal whose food is cooked by an Eastern European immigrant. But the emotional deceptions cry out for the finesse of Lubitsch (who played right before), just as the satirical opportunities need a dedicated cynic like Preston Sturges (who played after). It’s certainly interesting, however, to see a time capsule of when my home state was mythologized as the ideal of American class. Reminds me of why I look back on it romantically. And why I bolted for California when I was 18.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: COLD WAR

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In 2015, back when he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski played chicken with the Academy orchestra. He was at the microphone for his acceptance speech for less than sixty seconds when they started to play him off—but, full of good spirit, he spoke over the music and kept on thanking. The orchestra music climbed higher and higher until it had nowhere else to go. With an audible sense of confusion, the musicians stopped playing completely. The audience laughed. The Academy’s bluff had been called. Pawlikowski finished his thank you’s, saving his family for last, and made a triumphant exit.

Having seen his new film, Cold War, that acceptance speech is still my favorite thing he’s done.

While Ida was (and is) celebrated, I remained a tepid non-fan. I chalked up its success with the Academy to it fitting the platonic ideal of what too many people think an “art film” is—a platonic ideal that’s 50 years old by now, and that Ida didn’t transcend. It had a stately topic and looked beautiful, but what it had to say felt undistinguished, and its choice to frame every lovely image off-center was more an affectation than a meaningful style.

Cold War, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opened in the US this month, continues with most of the same virtues and vices, even though it is the more interesting film. It tells a love story criss-crossing the Iron Curtain, as two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) move back and forth between the East and the West during the Stalin era. In the Soviet bloc, they’re subject to censorship and violent bureaucratic insanity. Abroad, they are dislocated. He feels unsatisfied with his lower place on the cultural ladder. She chafes at being seen as exotic by condescending Westerners. And so they search for some place and some way to be happy together. The film drops in and out of their lives, jumping ahead years between scenes, with each point in space and time marked by a different style of musical performance.

It is a fine structural conceit, but the result is curiously arid. She is the woman of my life, the hero insists, though the film captures neither the expression of passion nor the pain of it being held in. The two lovers argue, split, and embrace in the streets, but they register less as desperately emotional beings and more like models in a high-end, glossy black-and-white magazine ad. (An ad for what? Maybe cologne, or perfume, or a fashion line—in high-end ads, they don’t even have to show the product). Part of this thinness may have to do with length. Cold War aims to span decades and phases of life in under 90 minutes. And while master impressionists can and have flipped through time with both historical acumen and emotional pain, Pawlikowski’s execution feels like holes of causality have been punched out. Just to be strict but fair, I set it alongside other Cannes-feted, critically-raved films that cover similar thematic ground, like The Double Life of Veronique and Nostalghia—and Cold War looks all the more cursory and prosaic by comparison.

This is not, however, to say that Cold War is entirely unrewarding for arthouse hangers-on, but rather that its rewards almost entirely skim the surface: a resonant historical setting, immediate melodrama, literal metaphors, and pictorial beauty. The main exception is Joanna Kulig’s wonderful performance itself. She dredges up what’s unspoken in her character, and only a fool could deny a moment as exquisite as Kulig’s lonely, jaded heroine whipping her hair to rockabilly to try and squeeze every bit of consolation out of freedom that she can. But now that Cold War is short-listed for another Best Foreign Film Oscar, I can’t help but wonder why such definitions of “cinematic art” can’t be richer or more daring. And why movies about the trauma of the past arrive here with hype that smells vaguely like nostalgia.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Cold War is open in select arthouses, with more to come. In case you’re curious about that Oscar speech, here it is.

Short Cuts: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

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In the Coen brothers’ last movie, Hail, Caesar!, George Clooney played a kidnapped movie star who wound up in the thrall of blacklisted Communist screenwriters. “They’ve figured out the laws that dictate everything,” he gushes bumblingly at the end, once he’s retuned to the studio. “It’s all in a book called ‘Kapital’, with a ‘K’.” He’s summarily slapped upside the head and pushed back in front of the cameras.

His excitement about answers is a telling moment, and not because the Coens’ work is particularly Marxist or anti-Marxist. Indeed, nailing down the philosophy of their movies is a good deal more complex, more frustrating, and more fun. Their films are loaded with symbols and “isms”, enigmas and portents, references to politics and myth and the Bible, but all handled with the puckishness of natural born storytellers (and, on occasion, inveterate class clowns) who’d sooner shrug it off than cop to an academic reading. But what they have been, time and again, are our most affable chaoticians: from Blood Simple to Fargo to Burn After Reading to A Serious Man, their films return to a fiendish vendetta against anyone, on their side of the screen or ours, who presumes they’ve “figured out” what’s going on—or what’s going to happen next.

In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their new film for Netflix, the spinning of such tales is itself a central theme. Even by Coen standards, Buster Scruggs is an odd bird: an anthology of six vignettes set in Old West, dotted with balladeer heroes and framed as short stories found in a musty cloth-bound book. At first, the cartoonishness of the film is so out of sync with its own literary framing device that I wondered if the Coens really had turned into the cheap, heartless ironists their detractors always claimed. The opening two chapters don’t have narratives so much as characters who are established and then promptly dispatched: first a sociopathic singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson), and then a lone bandit (James Franco) who might have borrowed his coat from Sergio Leone. To the extent that these first thirty minutes, in a vacuum, mean anything at all, it’s mainly to take old movie archetypes and drop them into a vision of the West where death is not only brutal, but sudden and arbitrary. Such ultraviolent genre revisionism has been done before, better and deeper. And as for the Coens’ vision of the West, it starts out so thin that I had to wonder if thinness was the point. (If they actually went to Monument Valley, they opted to make it look like a digital matte painting).

That curiosity should be nurtured, because the film expands and gets richer as it goes along. Its subject is death, or the eternal threat of it, as viewed through American mythology. And by the end, this idea has picked up nuance, added thematic complexities, transitioned from looney-tune comedy to pathos, hinted at self-reflexivity, and opened itself to the possibility that even if death is inevitable, fatalism needn’t be so absolute. I can’t, for the life of me, sympathize with the criticism that it feels like stitched-together TV episodes. This is a clear case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a steady progression whose stories shade one another and allow meaning to flourish in the cracks between them. The passage with Tom Waits is perhaps the most soulful work in a filmography where genuine, intimate soulfulness is rather rare. Zoe Kazan’s chapter is the longest and most densely plotted, and thus saved for near the end, as if the initial thinness of the film has thickened enough to tell it. And the corker is the finale, a single scene of darkly comic dialogue that, depending on how you read it, is either a trip to the underworld or an ordinary stagecoach ride where waning light and a good narrator can play tricks on your imagination.

It wouldn’t do to read too much wisdom into Buster Scruggs—or too little. In fact, either one seems disrespectful to a morbid compendium whose climax is an on-screen storyteller flashing a grin and saying “How would I know?” But if this is how smart-asses (now in their 60s) approach the concept of mortality, it’s mature and haunting, one of the most eccentric and gnawing surprises of 2018. And as it reaches a resolution, it makes it clear that if you’re looking for a lesson from the film, or from the Coens, it’s that the thrill was always in the telling.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs went straight to Netflix after stopping off at the Venice Film Festival to win the award for Best Screenplay. In a rare touch of class, Netflix doesn’t shrink the player until all the credits have rolled.

Short Cuts: A STAR IS BORN

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I was interested in the new A Star is Born for a simple reason: it seemed like a deeply uncool movie to make. The story is something like Hollywood’s equivalent of Romeo & Juliet: one doesn’t walk into any iteration of A Star is Born expecting narrative surprises—or, for that matter, any type of hip, ironic savvy. It’s a weepie and a melodrama, rooted in an (imagined?) cinematic past where the former term existed and the latter wasn’t a dirty word. You know how it goes: a star at the peak of his fame falls in love with a struggling ingenue and helps launch her to the stratosphere. Only as her star rises, his falls, and a mixture of alcoholism, jealousy, and the cruel machinations of fame destroy their happily-ever-after. Here, they are a country musician played by Bradley Cooper (also directing and co-writing) and Lady Gaga (fairly new to acting, and thus the closest thing to an ingenue ever trusted with the part) as a girl with a heart of gold and a voice to match.

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” Cooper warbles sincerely, though the movie itself might disagree. There is a modern sheen here, from YouTube to synth beats to updated sexual politics. But it hews to an old-fashioned ideal of what a Hollywood movie should be: this is real you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry stuff, going big on unironic emotions, putting star power front and center, doubling down on any cliches, and leaning happily on the modern fairy tale conceits that can lift a Cinderella into a world of riches, true love, and artistic validation in the span of a week. I have far more use for L.G.’s transformation into an actress than B.C.’s into a singer, though the fact that each of them is trying on new hats has let them pull off a nifty show-biz trick of being known quantities and underdog revelations at the same time. If you walk out after the first 45 minutes, you’ll have seen the friendliest, giddiest, most genuinely feel-good movie of the year, and even a hardened cynic might be so swept up by the offhand warmth that they’ll dread what they know is coming. The cynic, then, can take comfort in knowing that Cooper and co. sell the rise better than the fall, and that the spell wavers any time the screen doesn’t have the chemistry of its two already-born stars to rely on.

I’m still not sure, however, that this story actually means anything, or ever has. There are certainly topics this A Star is Born explores. The filters of pop culture authenticity, for one—the difference between sitting alone at the piano and having a laser show with backup dancers. Lady Gaga’s own star persona gets its close-up, from her nose to her status as a Queer icon. And of course, there’s addiction and depression, which Cooper wisely recognizes as a more vital catalyst than jealousy. But there was always a certain exultation of show business inherent in the tragedy on display, not just in this version but in all of them, as if to ask “well, what else is there?” And no A Star is Born has ever really tried to reconcile that paradox when it’s so much more desirable (for them? for us?) to romanticize it instead. So guard yourself, as much as you can, against Sam Elliott’s grizzled metaphor about how all any artist can do is work within “twelve notes and an octave.” Your skepticism will be correct. But if the only way the movie could ever make its point is simply and shamelessly by hooking you, it does. Oh, how it does.

✬✬✬✩✩

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A Star is Born is up for 5 Golden Globes and enjoying a box office afterglow. If you were put off by it, you have two months to make peace with the phrase “Academy Award winner Lady Gaga.”