Sunday, May 29, 2011

Going in Circles (Somewhere, Dogtooth, and Meek's Cutoff)

Picking a fight over a movie has its kicks, but part of the fun depends on the adversary. For example, Ali Arikan's recent Pirates of the Caribbean piece, which boldly upbraids a blockbuster predestined to suck, baits fans too inept to formulate a cogent argument, and has received a hearty round of Hurrah-for-Karamazovs from fellow blogger/critics who have all written immeasurably better things, strikes this reader as no more than a boring provocation. (There's a point to be made against the masses lining up like lemmings for the latest Hollywood refuse, but Ali's facile broadside doesn't come close to making it.) In contrast Eileen Jones, who occasionally plays the "moron" card as cheaply as Mr. Arikan rails about "cunts," nevertheless explains quite wittily and elegantly why Rob Marshall's movie fails (and how Gore Verbinski's maligned immediate predecessors succeeded far more than they were given credit for). Even better was Jones's challenge to critics of the Coen brothers' True Grit (and admirers of Hathaway's), which forges a fascinating link between the film, Portis's book, and Laughton's Night of the Hunter, and mounts a convincing defense that the Coens's body of work -- contrary to its critics and even a few admirers -- has been anything but cold.

Part of what makes an argument effective is the worthiness of its opponents; it's those same opponents, however, that can make crafting such an argument daunting. High-profile pictures -- The Dark Knight, The Tree of Life -- breed a religious fanaticism in their devotees that can be difficult (and tiresome) to deal with, but Nolanoids and Malickheads typically have a mass facelessness -- like the torch-and-pitchfork crowd at the end of Night of the Hunter -- that give their onslaughts a welcome dash of the ridiculous. Find yourself disliking a smaller film like Meek's Cutoff, Somewhere, or Dogtooth, however, and you may find yourself up against formidable admirers of one, two or all three of those movies, often critics you respect. Movies like these are invariably described by their fans as "challenging": they make the viewer work a little to understand them. I'm all for a little audience effort (Certified Copy being a recent example), but my litmus test ultimately boils down to this: Are you working harder than the movie is to express itself? Kubrick and Malick, Kiarostami and the Coens can all be difficult, but I always have the impression that they know what their movies are about. I'm never left with the sense that they're giving anything less than their all.

The least offensive of the aforementioned threesome, Somewhere is Sofia Coppola's latest non-movie about characters stuck in mind-numbing stasis. As in Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, Coppola traces celebrity and affluence as the causes of this condition, and I do feel that some critics of her work are off-base by begrudging her for writing what she knows. The problem with her films isn't their insularity, but what she puts into them -- dying stars inside of black holes. Lost in Translation overcome many of its flaws because Bill Murray, as a movie star adrift in a strange land, so beautifully rendered charm out of ennui. (Scarlett Johansson, not so much.) Somewhere casts an inexpressive B-list actor (Stephen Dorff) as a fame-fatigued A-lister, and fails to make his estrangement -- from his daughter (Elle Fanning), from himself -- even remotely as persuasive. (Imagine what Murray would have done with the scene where Dorff's face becomes frozen under layers of movie makeup and you have a semblance of what's missing.) The movie has some affecting moments that evolve from long silences: an ice-skating practice; an older gentleman's guitar solo that captivates the hero more than an assembly of pole-dancers ever could. Inevitably, though, I have qualms about a filmmaker who believes that the best way to convey inertia is via an inert approach.

Somewhere looks downright admirable compared to Dogtooth, the acclaimed Greek black comedy about a father (Christos Stergioglou) who raises his three grown-up children on an isolated family estate that they are forbidden to leave. The kids, all maladjusted blanks with misbegotten vocabularies, are "protected" from the outside world -- represented by the patrarch's place of business, a dreary factory -- yet chaos emerges via a young woman (Anna Kalaitzidou) hired to prostitute herself to the older adolescent son (Hristos Passalis) and, more importantly, contraband videocassettes of Rocky and Flashdance that inspire the eldest daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) to flailing rebellion. Steven Boone has taught me more about visual syntax than any film critic around, but I must respectfully disagree with his assertion that the lead-pipe directorial style of Giorgos Lanthimos adds up to anything other than a thudding hollowness at the narrative's core. More than one admirer has compared Dogtooth to the best of Luis Bunuel (puh-leeze!), but the surrealist master always posited his malicious contraptions within a larger sociopolitical framework and made his targets worthy of their punishments. The cheap, empty cruelty of Dogtooth is closer in spirit to the early work of Michael Haneke and is every bit as despicable.

Which brings us to Meek's Cutoff, the most recent widely-praised film by my least favorite current filmmaker. The previous efforts of Kelly Reichardt, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, approach modern malaise from the opposite end of Sofia Coppola's economic spectrum: For Reichardt, it's poverty that's the cause of society's ills, a perfectly valid worldview negated by the filmmaker's insistence that the lower-class live out every interaction of their lives in staggering torpor. The sun not only never shines in her monotonous Pacific Northwest milieu, the characters never laugh, never crack a joke or a smile, never express or act out a subversive thought. When a character makes a rare act of selflessness, like the security guard who gives Michelle Williams money in Wendy and Lucy, he's made to look like a dunce.

I had braced myself for more of the same with Meek's Cutoff, her period-piece foray into 19th-century pioneering, so it was seductive to be confronted by sunlit vistas of an expansive Oregon desert, as ravishing as they are treacherous. (The peerless cinematography is by Chris Blauvelt, a relative newcomer with camera-operating credits for David Fincher and Gus Van Sant.) Although Reichardt's sub-laconic, micro-minimalist style works far better coming out of the mouths and registering on the faces of 1845 settlers, her ensemble is more varied this time out. (There's even, my God, a joke or two, albeit the biggest laugh is derived from an opening title card that reads "A Primitive Nerd Production.") Michelle Williams provides a stronger moral center than she was allowed in Wendy and Lucy; Paul Dano's precise enunciation is as hypnotic as it was in There Will Be Blood (hard to believe his breakout role, in Little Miss Sunshine, was a character who refused to speak); Shirley Henderson's dreamy British diction is a constant source of amusement. The most colorful character is the titular Stephen Meek (a bearded Bruce Greenwood), a posturing, self-aggrandizing guide who has persuaded (perhaps disingenuously) this handful of pioneer men and women to abandon the larger wagon train and follow him to a suitable terrain to call home.

The opening third of Meek's Cutoff casts such a spell I had nearly convinced myself that Reichardt had wrecked my thesis for this post. Eventually, however, her dunderheaded storytelling instincts kick in. The lost pioneers capture a solitary Native American (Ron Rondeaux), and much argumentation ensues over whether the man should be killed (Meek's preference) or used as a guide to a desperately-needed water source (the Williams/Patton option). I've read reviews describing Meek's Cutoff as an allegory for Bush's failed leadership in the Iraq War; if that was the intent, it's muddled by the fact that we never see Meek persuade anyone to do anything. His con -- if that's what it is -- occurs before the narrative opens. The movie is more about the perils of following: yet that too is hampered because the decision to follow the Cayuse Indian has no consequences one way or another. His motives are depicted as ambiguously as Meek's, no matter how much blind faith Williams puts into him. (Stabs at fragmented communication between the settlers and the Cayuse are about as convincing as similar scenes in The Ewok Adventure.)

I know, not every movie needs a payoff. To make the whole Waiting for Godot thing work, though, an artist has to captivate by other means, and Reichardt's ideas are too half-baked to warrant such high regard. She sets up a potentially riveting narrative -- growing suspicion that Meek is all bluster, mounting hysteria that the Cayuse is leading them into a trap -- and abandons it not due to the demands of the story, but because, I suspect, she feels above such niceties. Too bad. Despite succumbing to her worst impulses, Kelly Reichardt has come dangerously close to making a good movie. Maybe next time.


Ivan said...

Whew! Thanks for warning about Kelly R. I did not like Somewhere (wow, Sophia's diaries must be dull) and *hated* Dogtooth, probably the smuggest movie ever made.

Amir said...

Somewhere is the one I liked the least and I think I agree with your point on Dorff. A film with such a sparse narrative needs another hook (like Murray) to carry it along and Somewhere just didn't have that. I disliked Meek's Cutoff as well, but I saw it under terrible conditions (last year at TIFF, with no sleep in like 40 hours and a missing contact lens) so I won't comment until I watch it again.
As for Dogtooth though, which was probably my favourite film last year give or take a couple of others, I disagree with you. I wouldn't compare it to Bunuel, but I also don't think it aims for the larger sociopolitical framework you mention. I think I took the film on a more personal level than you (and many others) did, but the cruelty didn't seem so empty to me. I can see your point but I didn't find the film so detached to think the narrative was hollow at all. For me, it seemed to be much more of a personal film than one that would want to make social or political commentary.
So many people took the film for more than it was, which validates your argument that the audience was trying harder than the film but I wouldn't blame Lanthimos.

Craig said...

Thanks, Ivan and Amir, for your responses. It's funny how "Dogtooth" can provoke such diametrically opposed responses. I think you have a good point, Amir, that the movie has been hyped as something it's not, and maybe that's colored my impression of it. Cruelty is always a tricky subject. Kubrick and the Coen brothers are always accused of being cruel to their characters, but really I can only think of a couple of instances of where I thought they lost control of the tone of a movie. I wouldn't say Lanthimos loses control; he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do. The whole enterprise just seemed irredeemably ugly to me.

And Ivan, don't let my opinion of Kelly Reichardt color yours. A lot of people like her movies. I'm just not one of them.

Ivan said...

Craig, I'll keep enough of an open mind regarding KR's flicks not to leave the room or change the channel if one is on TV--that's how I discovered Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a flick my friends are surprised to hear I like. Maybe it was *because* it was a random experience, with zero expectations or baggage.

Matt S. said...

I basically agree with your assessment of Dogtooth. Besides the fact that my wife and I made the unfortunate blunder of making it our stay-at-home pick for Valentine's Day, it did seem like an incredibly cruel film. I didn't think it lacked for craft -- as you say, it seems to accomplish what it set out to do -- but my own bias tends to be against films that confront or (and I really hate this phrase) "indict the audience." The film to me seemed to be a savage indictment of patriarchal middle-class family power dynamics. If the film had been made in 1960, it might have been bold and provocative. In 2010, it just seems blunt and histrionic. (Male dominance = incest/rape!) I don't think anyone really believes that upper middle class suburbs are hives of scum and villainy, hidden behind closed doors. David Lynch could get away with that, but then, he had Dennis Hopper as a secret weapon.

As awful as it is to sit through, it's difficult to take seriously, and that makes it hard to find the humor as funny as the film seems to think it is. I think it tries to be Bunuelesque and fails, because Bunuel couldn't help himself: he created characters. There was a measure of empathy, even if it was derisive. At least he understood human impulses. Dogtooth doesn't seem to have any humanity at all. It just seems like an empty provocation that tries to intimidate its audience into thinking that it's insightful and relevant, just because it's "willing to go there." Calling it the smuggest movie ever made, as Ivan did, seems apt, even if there are several other films that could vie for that title.

Craig said...

Thanks for weighing in, Matt. You expressed my qualms better than I could. In a way, "Dogtooth" does feel like a weirdly out of time film. Yet, as you indicated, there's a certain quality to it that's very contemporary, and not in a good way. (I wish my memory could do justice to Tom Shone's hilarious piece on what it feels like to be indicted in an audience....)

JM said...

I liked the first two Pirates films, but the third was long and dull. I am not looking forward to the fourth since my dear mother wants to see it. Bah

Adam Zanzie said...

While we're in agreement about the strange anticlimax of Meek's Cutoff, I did think it was a very good film, and maybe even a "flawed great film" -- to borrow a phrase from Truffaut. The movie lacks a payoff, but it will probably age well. I was appalled by the way audiences treated it at Sundance; I would assume they, of all people, would be the ones to support it.

Thing is, I can't think of too many other films that convey better that sense of being lost in the wilderness, and maybe that's what's important about Meek's Cutoff. The film's not terribly strong on narrative, but I could never bring myself to outright pan it. Reichardt's technique is far too intriguing, even if I'm not totally enamored with it.

Haven't had the chance to check out her other films yet, but you're right about the dubious Bush allegories being developed over this new movie. Filmmaker Magazine actually asked Reichardt directly about the Bush theory, and she responded, "Yeah... I don't really want to go there."

No love for Ali's Pirates smackdown? Sure, it wasn't pofessional film critiquing, but then again Ali even admitted that he walked out of the movie: he was only baiting fans in order to make a point. It says a lot about us when the summer release we're expected to look forward to the most is an expensive Disney product of Hollywood directed by Rob Marshall, who just so happens to be my own least favorite modern director (and not in a good way).

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. I was with "Meek's Cutoff" for about forty minutes; then, once Reichardt's schema became clear (with the Indian), the air went out of it for me. This is a key movie (along with "Tree of Life") at the heart of the "boring movies" debate currently raging (see Tom Shone, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Farran Nehme Smith, et al.). My stance is that slow, arty, open-ended movies can be good, but possessing those qualities doesn't automatically mean that they are. I don't think Reichardt has figured that out yet.

As for Ali, I still fail to see any point to his piece beyond the thudding obviousness of it -- all of a piece with the calculated "outrageousness" of his persona on display at Ebertfest -- much less why so many writers who could have written (and have written) better things were slapping their knees in hysterics over his alleged daring. I'm sure he's a cool guy to hang out with, but some folks can't seem to tell the difference between a fun drinking buddy and a good writer with something to say.