Sunday, March 10, 2013

House Arrests (This Is Not a Film and Killer Joe)

Over the last few weeks have come two articles of note - Complex Pop Culture's "25 Best Movie Critics of All Time," followed by Cineaste Magazine's profile of a handful of the 35-and-youngers, "Film Criticism: The Next Generation." For all the usual fallacies associated with list-making (Dana Stevens on, Kent Jones off - riiiiiight), the former is a surprisingly decent overview, if typically Americentric and short-term-memoried. The latter is a commendable attempt to advance the notion that the future of movie criticism is bright, a thesis disputed by at least a couple of the "best." For our purposes here, I'm less interested in what the established Eeyores think about the whippersnappers than in what it would take for an up-and-comer to make his or her way into the canon.

To paint in broad strokes, I think that many twentysomething critics are gifted with strong voices without having a whole lot to say. Oftentimes, on sites that employ them, they blend together as the same voice, bereft of any individual distinctions; their prose isn't instantly recognizable the way Fernando Croce's is, for example. Far from tentative, their biggest flaw is supreme confidence masking insecurity: They come across like grad students straining to come up with an "original" point-of-view on topics that have been thoroughly excavated. Consequently, I find hard to take seriously any "bold" statement they make. (That every movie is regarded as either a towering masterpiece or a crime against humanity doesn't help.) You really think O.C. and Stiggs is better than Nashville? Then show your readership something beyond a string of haughty declarative sentences. Show that you are searching and grappling with the film, with yourself, with the connection between the two. These are the qualities that have made many of the greatest critics: look at the Top-25 list again.

These are the qualities of all great artists, as Jafar Panahi demonstrates in This is Not a Film (2011). I'm going to bypass what everybody already knows about Panahi's house-arrest iPhone documentary (cake-smuggling, a pet iguana named Igi) and sidestep what I don't know about his body of work (i.e., everything) and instead focus on what resonated with me the most - the film's concluding movement. After approximately an hour of Panahi and his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's detailing of the tension between Panahi's physical confinement and intellectual freedom, the pair are interrupted, as Mirtahmasb is about to leave, by a garbage collector, who takes note of Mirtahmasb's sophisticated digital camera left on Panahi's kitchen table. Panahi takes the camera and follows out of his apartment and onto the elevator the garbage collector as he makes his rounds through the building. Collector and filmmaker chat for several minutes as the elevator goes down, culminating with Panahi following him outside while the banned "Fireworks Wednesday" celebration explodes in the sky around them.

What I love about this sequence is not merely not knowing whether it's spontaneous or staged or both, but that Panahi shows it doesn't matter. While other documentary filmmakers - from Errol Morris to Alex Gibney to Michael Moore to Werner Herzog - may at times questionably mix fact with fiction, Panahi makes the creative impulse This Is Not a Film's true subject. By finally finding a compelling "character" (other than himself), even introducing him via what is essentially a Meet-Cute, does the director become briefly yet exhilaratingly free.

If they haven't already, the Neo-Auteurists - i.e., the aforementioned upstart critics who concur with the pantheon of Great Filmmakers while claiming that their justifiably forgotten works are better than the highly regarded ones (John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn is greater than The Searchers, Orson Welles's wine commercial is superior to Citizen Kane) - will sooner or later burst forth to declare that William Friedkin's Killer Joe (2012) is a more significant achievement than his 1970s watersheds The French Connection and The Exorcist. It isn't, not by a long shot. But it's a buoyantly sleazy noir-comedy made by a filmmaker arguably more resourceful now than he was then. Give the 77-year-old Friedkin credit for staying power: working again from a script by playwright Tracy Letts, this director, often reprimanded by Pauline Kael for blunt docudrama brutalism, has reimagined his style without going soft. He doesn't "open up" Killer Joe so much as supply it with a vibrant atmosphere. The movie breathes, even as it's exhaling toxic fumes.

A thoroughly disreputable film that made me laugh a lot (Kael may have laughed, too: What she wrote about Repo Man - "Sometimes a movie without any redeeming social value can make you feel good" - applies equally here), Killer Joe shows perverse affection toward its venal Texas lowlifes: they're alive in a way the zombies of Soderbergh's Bubble or the woebegones of Kelly Reichardt's movies are not. (How else could Emile Hirsch give his most vivid and weirdly likeable performance ever?) It's also more deeply entrenched in classic noir than other movies that make no more than feints and nods toward the genre. The title character's murderous predilections are in tandem with kinky sexual fetishes from which neither Friedkin nor Letts nor Matthew McConaughey (another of his recent career-redefining performances) shy away. Meticulous in planning the details of a homicide (in this case the mother/wife of, respectively, Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church), yet impulsive in his lust (in this case their jailbait sister/daughter, who becomes his "retainer" for the killing), Joe is a control freak who loses control of the situation only to take extreme measures to gain it back. His cool desperation culminates in a dinner-table set-piece that's like the demented mirror-image of the breakfast-table climax in Moonstruck. Killer Joe turns into a bloody comedy-of-marriage - imagine the climax of Much Ado About Nothing crossed with Julius Caesar - a revelation perhaps obscured by the appearance of a chicken drumstick. This key prop, and what it is used for, has become understandably controversial. Yet it's like Chekhov said: If you introduce a drumstick by the third act, sooner or later it's gotta go off.


Jake Cole said...

I object in strongest terms to the characterization of young critics being grad students straining for originality. Some of us only have bachelor's degrees.

I couldn't put Killer Joe on the same technical level as The Exorcist and the like, but I do think it and Bug show off a side to Friedkin I enjoy as much as TFC, To Live and Die, etc.

Craig said...

Good one! I know it's a convenient out and a cliche to say, "Oh, I didn't mean you!," but really, I didn't. (You have a distinctive voice, for one thing.) And I chose the grad-student analogy because, in another context, I've been there, and it can take a while to shake out of your system. ("Boudica was more historically significant than Caesar Augustus because....")

I agree on Friedkin. He seems to have discovered a sense of humor late in life.